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What If J.T. Barrett's Injury Leads to Legal Action?

The impact of the J.T. Barrett's pregame collision with a cameraman could extend beyond next week's Big Ten championship game if Ohio State pinpoints who's at fault—easier said than done.

A knee injury suffered by Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett before Saturday’s game against Michigan could raise legal issues. As first revealed by Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer in his postgame press conference, a cameraman hit Barrett’s right knee with his camera while Barrett was warming up. The hit reportedly damaged the knee’s meniscus and later caused Barrett to exit Saturday’s game, which the Buckeyes won, 31–20. Meyer fumed about the circumstances that led to Barrett’s injury and called for an “all-out” investigation into the identity of the cameraman and why he allegedly hit Barrett. Jeremy Rauch of FOX 19(Ohio) reports that one eyewitness believes the cameraman was “malicious” in hitting Barrett.

For his part, the 22-year-old Barrett says he “hopes” that the hit on him was not malicious. After the game, Barrett explained that as he threw near the sideline, there wasn’t much space to move around. In that crowded situation, a cameraman tried to “squeeze through,” hitting the quarterback in the legs as he did so. Barrett says he plans to play next week against No. 5 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, suggesting the injury is not something worthy of legal recourse. But if Barrett changes course, there could be ramifications for the cameraman, his employer and Ohio State’s archrival.

The way Barrett described the incident suggests it probably was not a deliberate act of violence. It seems more likely that a cameraman simply miscalculated—perhaps badly, but not intentionally—as to how much room he had to maneuver. He then inadvertently banged his camera into Barrett. Logically, it would also seem very strange that a media member would try to injure a player. Along those lines, the cameraman would likely deny that he would ever intend to injure a player.

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Still, if evidence and witness testimony show that the hit was intentional, the cameraman may have committed a crime. Under the laws of Michigan, like those in other states, to knowingly hit another person and cause an injury can constitute assault and battery. In Michigan, a conviction for simple assault and battery can lead to a jail sentence of up to 93 days. To hit another person and cause or attempt to cause serious harm, or to hit with an object that could be construed as a weapon, can constitute aggravated assault and battery. It is punishable by up to a year behind bars.

There are also potential civil law implications of the incident. While the injury was not so severe as to prevent Barrett from starting in Saturday’s game and while Barrett expressed a desire to play next week, meniscus injuries can sometimes linger and eventually require surgery. This means that even if Barrett can play through the pain against Wisconsin, his ability to do so would not prove that his knee is fine. He might later require treatment.

Playing hurt could also cause Barrett’s performance to suffer, which could not only affect Ohio State’s playoff chances but also alter Barrett’s 2018 NFL draft prospects. If Barrett’s draft position falls due to the knee injury, the incident could cost him hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

At this time, however, it is unlikely that Barrett would contemplate a lawsuit against anyone. Athletes usually avoid using the legal system to seek compensation for injuries that occurred while playing their sport. Further, Barrett’s injury might prove to be only mild or moderate rather than serious and lasting. On the other hand, it may be days before the full extent of Barrett’s knee injury is known. Also, though Barrett was injured while warming up in preparation for a football game, an injury caused by a cameraman before a game is hardly a common or foreseeable one.

With that in mind, Barrett could eventually explore claims against the cameraman for civil battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. These claims would contend that the cameraman acted with intent or knowledge. Even if the cameraman possessed no such ill intent, Barrett could argue that the cameraman was nonetheless negligent in carelessly carrying around the camera in a crowded space.

Barrett could argue that the media company employing the cameraman is legally responsible for the actions of its employees when those actions occur within the scope of their employment. A cameraman on assignment at a game would likely be acting within the scope of his duties. If, however, the media company pays the cameraman as an independent contractor rather than as an employee, it would be more difficult for Barrett’s attorneys to establish liability against the company. Generally, courts limit so-called “vicarious liability” or “respondeat superior”—legal phrases that refer to employer liability for wrongful acts by employees—to employer-employee relationships.

Barrett’s injury could also raise questions about stadium responsibility for players’ safety. It seems that his warmup throws took place in a crowded area where various individuals, including media, struggled to find space to do their time-sensitive work. In his postgame press conference, Meyer made a point of highlighting the crammed pregame environment in Michigan Stadium. There are “too many damn people on the sideline,” Meyer bristled.

If Barrett’s injury proves lasting and detrimental to his career, Barrett might consider negligence claims against Michigan Stadium, which is owned and operated by the University of Michigan. He could insist that the stadium failed to adequately supervise the safety conditions for student-athletes who were on field prior to the game. Such an argument would assert that the stadium’s actions—or lack of preventative actions—led to a higher risk of danger for him and other players.

In response, the stadium would likely stress it took every reasonable step and complied with industry standards. From that lens, the stadium would assert that the injury suffered by Barrett was a freakish and unforeseeable occurrence. Further, given that the University of Michigan is a public university, it may be able to invoke “sovereign immunity.” This is a legal principle that generally instructs that citizens cannot sue public entities without their consent. The university could maintain that regardless of the merits of any lawsuit, the university does not consent to be sued over Barrett’s injury.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.