Nobody said running a multi-million dollar professional sports franchise would be easy. On top of issues surrounding players’ criminal activities, and their alleged drug use improprieties, have come ex-player lawsuits against the NFL arising from concussion injuries. Then there is the occasional stadium customer disaster: just this month, a fan died after he fell from an upper level of Atlanta’s Turner Field. Until now, the worst such public relations nightmare was probably the pummeling of an S.F. Giants’ fan, Bryan Stow, at Dodger’s Stadium on opening day in 2011, legal liability issues as to which remain unresolved.

Now the New England Patriots, already struggling with their public image after player Aaron Hernandez was criminally charged with the death of an acquaintance, face a civil suit arising from a tragic, though highly unusual, gameday incident.

According to the Springfield Republican, Kimberly Chartier, a resident of Chicopee, Massahusetts, is filing a civil suit against the team and stadium service providers (Gillette Stadium operator, NPS, and security service provider, TeamOps) alleging that they are responsible for the death of Jeffrey Chartier, 40, during the season opener in 2010.

According to the story, reports surfaced at the time that an altercation with a security guard during the Week 1 game against the Bengals immediately preceded Chartier’s death.

The suit indicates that Chartier was invited to go on the field before the game with his then-6-year-old son, Tedy, by two team officials. Reportedly, Tedy did not have a field pass and was denied access by a security guard identified as Arthur Sherman. Following a 15-minute confrontation, Chartier returned to his seat where he is believed to have suffered a heart attack. The suit says that stress related to the argument with the security guard was the cause of the heart attack.

Unless the case is settled, the liability of the team, or perhaps just that of the stadium operators, may well ultimately go to a jury for determination. The widow’s most likely assertions will be that the defendants either intentionally or negligently inflicted emotional distress on her husband; and, if the jury so finds, that those defendants are therefore responsible for the fatal consequences of her husband’s heart attack, unusual though such consequences might have been.

The more likely claim to be pursued by the widow would be negligent infliction of emotional distress. The essential elements of a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress would be (1) negligence by the security guard in the scope of his employment; (2) emotional distress; (3) causation between the incident and the medical consequences; (4) physical harm manifested by objective symptomatology; and (5) that a reasonable person would have suffered emotional distress under the circumstances of the case.

On its face, the first and fifth elements would seem to present the most difficult hurdles for the plaintiff here. As to fault, did the security guard do anything wrong in the first place: was he following reasonable administrative rules in denying Chartier and his son access onto the field? As to the fifth element, would a reasonable person have suffered emotional distress under the circumstances of this case? Stated another way, while getting on the field might be fun and exciting, would a reasonable person suffer emotional distress if he and his son were denied it? Will a pre-trial judge permit this latter issue to go to a jury for determination; or will he or she find, as a matter of law, that the denial of field access just wasn’t “that big a deal,” so as to cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress. These two issues may present the biggest legal hurdles to the plaintiff here.

Then there is the separate, and perhaps most interesting, question of what damages were caused by the guard’s conduct, even if his denial of access to the field was determined by a jury to be negligent. At first glance, one might question whether a jury could, and should, compensate the plaintiff for such an unusual consequence (her husband’s fatal heartache) of an unpleasant, but certainly not earthshaking encounter.

But weighing, for any given claimant, the level of recoverable infliction of emotional distress in a given case triggers the application of a little known legal concept, the so-called “eggshell plaintiff rule.” The rule is pretty universal in the United States: it is described in a Massachusetts appellate case as the “tort concept of ‘you take your victim as you find him.’” Commonwealth v. Carlson, 447 Mass. 79, 85 (2006). How would it be applied here? If, hypothetically, Chartier had a particular propensity to melt down physically from even minimal stress, due to a preexisting physical or mental condition, the jury would likely be instructed that the defendants would be responsible for these consequences, even though 99.9% of spectators, under like circumstances, would not have had a fatal heart attack after such an incident. So, if the jury were to get that far, the defendants might be deemed responsible for damages resulting from Chartier’s fatal heart attack, even though most people, encountering this embarrassing but hardly life threatening situation, would have had minimal or no physical consequences from it.

If this case proceeds to trial, there would be a myriad of issues before the jury: the propriety of the security guard’s conduct; comparative fault of the deceased; his medical history; the extent, if any, of medical causation between this incident and his death; and the extent, if any, of the team’s responsibility, as compared to that of the stadium operators. But the fact that Massachusetts courts tend to defer to the wisdom of a jury in ruling on the liability and damages aspects of these cases, and the potentially embarrassing consequences of a jury trial no doubt blanketed by media coverage, lead one to think that this tragic case will, at some point, be quietly settled and go away.

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Ralph Jacobson, a Stanford Law alumnus, has focused on personal injury law for over 30 years. With numerous articles in the CEB Civil Litigation Reporter, one of which was cited by the California Supreme Court, his expertise is well-recognized. Ralph has consulted for Bancroft Whitney on its California Civil Practice Series and lectured extensively on personal injury law. He’s a co-author of California Government Tort Liability Practice and a member of both the Alameda and Contra Costa County Bar Associations, now serving as counsel to the firm.