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Revenge Knock Out?

Can Joey Gamache Make the New York State Athletic Commission Pay for the Loss That Ended His Boxing Career?

By Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq.

On February 26, 2000, thousands in attendance at Madison Square Garden and millions of fans watching across the world on pay-per-view bore witness to the very best and very worst features of professional boxing as they watched junior welterweight sensation Arturo Gatti knock out fan favorite and one-time World Boxing Association super featherweight champion Joey Gamache in dramatic fashion in round two of their fight on the televised undercard of Oscar De La Hoya's bout with Derrell Coley. On the one hand, fans witnessed a knockout for the ages, a knockout so well put together, so crushing, and so final that it would be on the lips of boxing fans for years to come when the topic of their favorite knockouts came up in conversation. On the other hand, however, the fans also saw the brutal ending to the career of a proud warrior in Gamache, a veteran of many high profile fights who had given his all in the ring during in a sixteen-year professional career. That is because in suffering brain damage from the knockout, Gamache was rendered medically ineligible to ever box again.

The outcome was not entirely unexpected to boxing cognoscenti, as Gatti had already scored plenty of memorable knockouts in his career and Gamache was a few years and a few weight classes past his prime. What was surprising, however, was that Gatti looked about two to three weight classes heavier than Gamache when he entered the ring on February 26, 2000. Indeed, since the weigh-in the day before, Gatti had reportedly put on close to 20 pounds, effectively making him a middleweight (160 lbs) in a bout that was scheduled to take place one pound over the junior welterweight (140 lbs) limit. While putting on several pounds after a weigh-in is standard in boxing, it was the circumstances that surrounded Gatti's weigh-in that ultimately shrouded the weigh-in the controversy. Questions arose as to whether Gatti had properly weighed in at the limit to begin with, and more specifically whether he stood on the scale for long enough for it to balance out and provide an accurate reading of his weight. Further questions arose as to whether Gatti should have been allowed to fight the night of February 26, 2000, after reports on his weight gain started circulating around Madison Square Garden.

By virtue of a Notice of Intention to File a Claim against the New York State Athletic Commission (hereinafter the "Commission"), date stamped March 24, 2000, Gamache asserted that Gatti did not make weight and that the Commission was responsible for making certain that he did. In the next few months, the New York Court of Claims will decide whether Gatti's weigh-in was, in fact, compromised, and whether the Commission committed acts of negligence in allowing it to be so compromised and in allowing the fight to take place. After nearly nine years of discovery and motion practice, Gamache will soon get to see whether he can score a revenge knock out for the premature termination of his boxing career.

Elements of Negligence Under New York Common Law

The basic elements that must be established for any claim of negligence under New York State common law are: (1) duty, (2) breach, (3) causation, and (4) damages. To prove his case against the Commission, therefore, Gamache will have to establish that the Commission had a duty to make certain that the weigh-in was properly conducted in accordance with its standard practices and procedures and/or to disallow the fight if Gatti was more than 11 lbs. over the junior welterweight limit by fight night, that it had breached that duty by allowing Gatti to weigh-in in the manner in which he did or by not canceling the fight, that the fact that Gatti was permitted to weigh-in over the junior welterweight limit and/or that he was permitted to fight 11 lbs. over the junior welterweight limit on fight night was the cause of the injuries alleged, and whether Gamache suffered damages as a result of the breach of said duty. An element-by-element analysis follows below.

The Duty That the Commission Owes to All Boxers Under Its Jurisdiction

19 NYCRR § 206.5 provides, in relevant part, that a representative of the Commission "shall have complete authority, subject only to the direction of the commission or a higher-ranking representative of the commission acting on behalf of the commission, over all phases of the weigh-in[.]" At the same time, 19 NYCRR § 210.6 states that "all participants shall be weighed in on scales approved by the commission and in the presence of their opponents, the matchmaker and representatives of the commission, unless otherwise directed or authorized by the commission." Reading these two provisions together, it is indisputable that the Commission is the ultimate authority when it comes to a weigh-in, but at the same time partially delegates the witnessing of the weigh-in itself to other parties, the opponent and the matchmaker. Despite allowing other parties to witness the weigh-in, however, the New York Code of Rules and Regulations appears to create a duty to make certain that the weigh-in was properly conducted in accordance with the Commission's standard practices and procedures.

The duty owed by the Commission is heightened by a third provision, 19 NYCRR § 213.14, which provides that "[n]o boxer shall participate in any contest or exhibition following weight loss of one percent or more of body weight within 24 hours prior to such contest or exhibition, unless otherwise authorized by the commission." This provision would seem to indicate that the Commission has a proactive duty to investigate whether a boxer had to lose weight by extreme means prior to the weigh-in to get to the contractually agreed upon weight for a given fight. The duty is further heightened by 19 NYCRR § 214.8, which indicates that a bout should not be permitted to take place between two junior welterweights if there is more than an 11 lb. weight differential between them.

In its written decision and order on the summary judgment motion filed by the Commission in this matter (hereinafter the "Decision & Order"), the Court of Claims found that the statutory and regulatory scheme that governs professional boxing in New York State "does indeed create...a duty of care which runs from the Athletic Commission directly to the licensed boxers under its jurisdiction and control." The Court of Claims continued on to state that the Commission "must determine in the first instance whether two fighters are suitable opponents and may reject the match if it is not in the best interests of the health of either." It goes on to note that from the time that a fight is made in New York State, a boxer is required to be in ongoing contact with the Commission, and that on fight night the laws mandate that the Commission and "its agents are in direct control of everything that happens." As an initial matter, therefore, Gamache must establish, at trial, the duty that the Commission had as to the particular circumstances of the Gatti fight in order to succeed on his negligence claim.

The Purported Breach of Duty by the Commission

Once Gamache establishes that the Commission had a duty to make sure the weigh-in was conducted properly and/or to cancel the bout if it appeared that Gatti was more than 11 lbs. heavier than Gamache on fight night, he must then establish that the Commission breached that duty. The Decision & Order summarizes several purported discussions, interactions, and observations both at and after the weigh-in about Gatti's weight and whether a real protest was ever lodged after he stepped off the scale. It further refers to Gatti's noted history of having difficulty making weight and putting on sizeable amounts of weight between his fights. Based upon this evidence, it will be for the trier of fact to determine whether the Commission breached its duty, once so established.

The Causation Between the Commission's Actions and Gamache's Injuries

On causation, the Decision & Order infers that Gamache may have some problems establishing traditional negligence, but may be able to establish "relative fault." This is because by the time that the bout took place, the report that Gatti weighed-in around 160 lbs. on HBO's scale and the publicized controversy over Gatti's "rehydration" after the official weigh-in had "ripened sufficiently" as to impute the awareness of same to Gamache. Gamache, however, went forward with the fight. He later explained in his deposition that upon seeing Gatti in the ring that night, he said to himself "oh my God he's huge and we're fighters. I mean, we're in the trenches...so me I never quite a fight. I've never backed down from a fight or been intimidated whatever may be the case." In citing this, the Court of Claims concluded that it needed "no more eloquent a statement of why the question of reliance does not preclude claimants' recovery in negligence but goes only to determining relative fault."

It should be noted here that, rather than walking through the traditional elements of negligence, the Court of Claims first dismissed a cause of action for fraud against the Commission and then employed the fraud element of "reliance" to evaluate the negligence claims. Thus, although the causation element of a negligence claim is not neatly discussed within the decision, the inference of the Decision & Order in finding that this may be a matter of relative fault is that the decision by Gamache himself to participate in the Gatti fight, knowing what he likely knew about Gatti's weight issues, was the partial cause of the injuries that he ultimately sustained therein. To put it another way, the Court questioned whether Gamache reasonably relied on the Commission alone, rather than his own instincts and those of his handlers, in allowing the fight to go forward.

The Damages Sustained by Gamache

There is no dispute that Gamache suffered permanent injuries in his fight with Gatti and sustained financial loss as a result. Damages can be established even if the rest of a negligence claim ultimately cannot. If negligence can be shown under the idea of relative fault, therefore, the question is how much at fault Gamache was for what happened to him against Gatti, and once established, how much of the financial loss that he incurred as a result of the fight is owed to him by the Commission as damages.

In sum, the Decision & Order of the Court of Claims opened the door for Gamache to take the Commission to trial on several issues of fact surrounding the weigh-in prior to his ill-fated February 26, 2000 bout with Arturo Gatti. While Gamache's case appears strong as to the Commission's duty and breach of duty as to him, it might prove tricky for Gamache's counsel to fully overcome the argument that Gamache and his corner, knowing what they knew about the controversy surrounding Gatti's weigh-in, were partially at fault for what happened by allowing the fight to go on. If Gamache is found too much at fault, he may see this matter reach a dissatisfying conclusion. If not, perhaps the scales of justice will be more kind to Gamache than were those of the Commission, and will allow him to score the knockout this time around.

Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq. is an attorney at the New York law firm of Heidell, Pittoni, Murphy & Bach, LLP. He is also a New York State licensed boxing manager and the Chairman of the Sports Law Committee of the New York County Lawyers Association. ©

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 15, 2009 3:48 PM.

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