A gruesome finger injury to the father of now-former University of Georgia sophomore offensive tackle Cade Mays has sparked a lawsuit against the school and an impending transfer by Mays to the University of Tennessee.
Last month, Kevin Mays and Melinda Mays filed a civil complaint in a Georgia state court against seven named entities. They include the University of Georgia, the UGA Athletic Association, furniture manufacturer Mity-Lite and furniture supplier Dekalb Office Environments. Five unnamed persons were also sued. These parties collectively face a range of claims for product liability, negligence, breach of warranties, premises liability and loss of consortium.
The case—and how it could impact when Cade Mays is eligible to play for the Volunteers—is analyzed below.
The Lost Finger
The lawsuit centers on an incident that occurred on Dec. 15, 2017. Kevin and Melinda Mays, along with their two sons, Cade and younger brother Cooper, travelled from Tennessee to Georgia to attend a recruiting dinner at UGA’s Sanford Stadium. At the time, 6’6, 318-pound Cade Mays played at Knoxville Catholic. The son of a former college football player, Mays was one of the country’s most coveted players. He was ranked the No. 2 offensive tackle in the nation, per 247Sports.com. Multiple publications listed Mays as the top prospect from the state of Tennessee, a particularly impressive distinction given the high quality of football talent produced by the “Volunteer State.”
As a freshman at Knoxville Catholic, Mays committed to play for the Tennessee Volunteers, his father’s alma mater. He later changed his mind as the Volunteers struggled on the field. Mays formally announced his commitment to UGA on Dec. 20, 2017—five days after his father, who is righthanded, lost much of his right pinky finger while at the UGA dinner.
The dinner seemed like an ordinary affair. The Mays family sat at an assigned table, while other recruits and their parents sat at various other tables. The tables’ seats were Mity-Lite folding chairs that the Mays’ attorneys, Robin Loeb and Sara Sibley, assert were purchased from Dekalb Office.
During the dinner, Kevin Mays (the dad) tried to get up from his seat. The seat was in front of a building support column, which blocked the chair from moving backwards. This lack of traction led to the finger of Mays getting caught in the hinge of the chair as it folded. The finger, essentially caught in a collapsing trap, was then severed and shot across the floor.
UGA offensive line coach Sam Pittman saw what happened and picked up the severed pinky. He then put it in ice in an attempt to preserve it for surgical reattachment. Mays was quickly driven to Piedmont Hospital, which is about 2 1/2 miles from the stadium. Surgeons attempted to reattach the severed pinky, but unfortunately those efforts failed.
Mays was, understandably, in immense pain. While in the emergency room, Mays was asked a standard question in trauma treatment—what was his pain level on a scale of 1 to 10? He told surgeons it was a 10.
Unable to reattach the severed finger, doctors then treated the remaining stump. Mays was provided antibiotics and painkillers. He was then discharged from the hospital with care instructions. Since that time, Mays has undergone additional surgeries, including a full thickness skin graft to his fingertip, a reopening of the stump and cutting of the remaining bone to smooth it.
Mays, who an All-SEC guard and offensive captain in 1994 at Tennessee, continues to suffer from severe pain—he estimates between 8 and 10 out of 10—as well as swelling, tenderness and decreased mobility in his hand. According to his attorneys, Mays has incurred substantial medical expenses and lost income as a result of the injury. Mays expects to incur additional expenses in the years ahead. He believes he will continue to suffer mental and physical pain, disfigurement and a loss of the ability to labor.
Mays Still Attends UGA, Plays Football Despite Incident
The injury that befell his father didn’t dissuade Cade Mays from either committing to UGA or following through on that commitment. Over the last two seasons at UGA, Mays played in 28 games, 18 of which he started. He was recently presented as the co-winner of the Charley Trippi Award at UGA for his versatility. Mays’s time with the Bulldogs football program has ended. Earlier this week he entered the NCAA transfer portal. Late Thursday, Tennessee announced that Mays will transfer in and continue his football career and education as a Vol.
While Mays was a UGA student-athlete, his parents’ attorneys made clear to the school that there ought to be legal consequences for the finger incident. This was almost certainly made clear to UGA long before a lawsuit was filed in December. The litigation timeline, in other words, didn’t begin last month. It likely started many weeks or months before.
Indeed, before filing a complaint in court, the attorneys for the Mays would have mailed a demand letter to UGA and the other defendants. Presumably, settlement talks then commenced between attorneys for the Mays, the various defendants and possibly also attorneys for relevant insurance companies.
Those discussions would have centered on the defendants jointly paying Kevin and Melinda Mays an amount of money. If the parties agreed on an amount, the Mays would have then contractually relinquished their claims against all of the defendants. The lawsuit would have been settled out-of-court without the media’s awareness.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
It’s possible that settlement talks failed because of the multi-party dynamic of the situation. Each of the defendants has an incentive to downplay its relative role and blameworthiness. Each is also incentivized to direct fault onto others.
UGA, for instance, could stress that it didn’t design, manufacture or sell the folding chair. It merely bought the chair on the belief that, since it was available for sale, it was reasonably safe for ordinary use. Mity-Lite, in contrast, can assert that the chair itself was safe but that UGA rendered it unsafe by placing it in front of a support column. DeKalb Office, meanwhile, can emphasize that it simply sells furniture to corporate clients and has nothing to do with the production or usage of the furniture.
All of the defendants also have an incentive to, gently, direct blame onto Kevin Mays. They might contend that while they feel terribly about Mays’s injury, Mays is partially responsible for it. Based on the facts as presented in the complaint, it would seem (the defendants might argue) that he could have moved his chair before trying to get up. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20 and jurors might resent that kind of “blame the victim” reasoning.
Understanding the Claims and Possible Defenses
The case will be tried before Judge Ethelyn Simpson, a former prosecutor who is an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Georgia School of Law (the fact that she graduated from UGA Law does not in any way preclude her from presiding over a case in which UGA is a party).
The first claim in the complaint is for products liability. It is against Mity-Lite and its associated businesses. A product liability claim is one that alleges that there are defects in a product that cause harm to consumers and other potential users of a particular product. UGA is not a defendant to the first claim. This makes sense. While the school (presumably) purchased the chair that injured Mays, it did not design or manufacture the chair.
It’s a different story for Mity-Lite, a Utah-based business that designs, manufactures, tests, labels, packages and markets commercial furniture, including folding chairs. Attorneys for the Mays accuse the company of placing an inherently dangerous chair into a stream of commerce that distributors, retailers and, ultimately, Kevin Mays partook in.
The attorneys further contend that Mity-Lite knew, or should have known, “there was a substantial and unnecessary risk of injury to those who used its folding chairs.” The company is accused of “defectively-designing” folding chairs that posed an unreasonably high risk of serious injury to consumers. This risk, attorneys for the Mays insist, exceeded what an ordinary consumer would expect. More specifically, the chair “contained a hinge that had multiple pinch points, which acted like shears and/or crush points.” For this reason, Kevin Mays—who says he used the chair exactly as it was intended to be used—maintains that a typical user “would not expect the collapse or folding of the chair with the seat pan back edge going up.”
The validity of the products liability claim is difficult to ascertain without more information. During the litigation, evidence might surface about whether other ordinary users of the chair suffered similar injuries or if Mays’s injury is more of a fluke. Expert witnesses would also lend insight on the chair’s design and whether that design deviated from any relevant industry standards. In addition, Mity-Lite officials would be required to provide emails and other records that might mention safety issues. It’s possible the chair is somehow defective. It’s also possible there is nothing wrong with it and that a freak accident occurred.
The complaint also includes negligence claims against the defendants, including UGA. Negligence refers to an unreasonable failure to meet a duty of care and if that failure, in turn, causes injury. With UGA, Mays asserts that the school erred in the placement of chairs, particularly with respect to the amount of distance between chairs and obstructions. Mays contends that UGA unreasonably placed the folding chair “in a tight space with a structural column” right behind it. The lack of space caused the chair to trap and sever his finger.
UGA is also accused of premises liability, which refers to liability for unsafe conditions. Premises liability cases usually involve people who are invited onto a property (such as customers who enter a store) and then are injured on the property. Attorneys for the Mays highlight that UGA invited Kevin and Melinda Mays to the reception at Sanford Stadium. UGA, the plaintiffs maintain, endangered Kevin Mays by placing the folding chair in a location that “made ingress and egress from the folding chair unreasonably dangerous.”
Kevin and Melinda Mays also bring a loss of consortium claim against all of the defendants. Loss of consortium is a phrase that tries to capture the loss of love, companionship, comfort, encouragement, support and sexual relations found in a marriage due to a partner’s injury or death. Here, the claim focuses on the loss of consortium to Melinda Mays.
As noted above, the litigation process would shed light on whether the design of the chairs was defective and whether the various defendants acted reasonably or unreasonably under the circumstances. Evidence of past incidents involving this type of chair and a column behind it, to the extent any happened, would be important since it would go to foreseeability of the harm.
Kevin Mays would also be scrutinized for his decision-making. If he was aware or should have been aware that the column behind the chair posed a possible danger, he might still prevail in proving liability but the financial damages would be reduced. Like many states, Georgia uses a system of “comparative negligence.” If a plaintiff proves the defendant is mostly responsible but the plaintiff himself or herself is partly to blame, damages will be lowered.
UGA has another potential defense: sovereign immunity. Generally, public entities—including public universities—are immune from liability unless they agree to participate in a civil matter. A key word in the preceding sentence is “generally.” There are a variety of exceptions to sovereign immunity. This is true in Georgia with respect to certain types of personal injury claims under the Georgia Tort Claims Act. Exceptions extend to other types of claims, too. Last year, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that UGA is not immune from lawsuits concerning trade secrets. Also, the UGA Athletic Association would have a weaker argument for sovereign immunity as it is a constructed as a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity.
The most likely outcome with the litigation is that the parties reach a settlement. If the failure to reach a settlement is a key reason why a talented player like Mays decided to transfer, UGA might regret not working out a settlement last year.
Possible Impact on Mays' Transfer to Tennessee and Waiver Request
Cade Mays has retained a prominent attorney to represent him in his transfer situation. Tom Mars, who assisted Justin Fields and Shea Patterson in gaining immediate eligibility to play after their transfers and who represented Houston Nutt in his case against Ole Miss, will help Mays try to become eligible to play this fall at Tennessee. Mars told the Knoxville News Sentinel that he is “highly confident” that Mays will be eligible to play at that time.
Under NCAA rules, a transfer student-athlete must sit out a year before he or she is eligible to play. If Mays has to sit out a year, he would not be eligible until the 2021 season. However, a student-athlete can petition the NCAA for a waiver that would permit him or her to play immediately upon enrollment.
Under NCAA transfer guidelines that were revised last summer, there are limited circumstances which permit a waiver. Some of those waiver circumstances do not clearly apply to Mays.
For instance, there is no allegation that Mays was the victim of egregious behavior directly impacting his health, safety or well-being while at UGA. It’s true that his parents are now suing UGA, which on the surface would have created an awkward dynamic for Mays had he remained there. On the other hand, the genesis of the lawsuit—a finger incident at a reception in 2017 and determining responsibility for it—is not new and was with Cade Mays since his arrival in Athens two years ago. Also, the possibility that UGA would have permitted or somehow encouraged “egregious behavior” towards the health and safety of Mays is far-fetched. Neither Cade Mays’s coaches nor his professors at Georgia are presumably implicated in the finger incident. Neither group had any reason to treat Mays worse off because of a lawsuit involving the university and Mays’s parents—particularly since personal injury lawsuits often eventually settle out-of-court anyway.
Likewise, there’s no evidence that UGA intended to prevent Mays from playing for the Bulldogs. Just the opposite, the Bulldogs didn’t want to lose him. Mays was an integral member of Kirby Smart’s offensive line.
Mays would seem to have a more compelling waiver argument by arguing that a transfer to Tennessee would reflect family hardship. Such hardship is an accepted rationale for a waiver. Mays would need to show that the transfer is motivated by a recent injury or illness to an immediate family member. He would also need corroborating documentation from the Vols’ athletic department that he would be allowed to depart from the team to provide care to this family member. Under NCAA rules, this family member must be located within 100 miles of the university.
Mays could argue that he is transferring back home to help out his parents, particularly his dad, in light of the hand injury. His parents’ lawsuit, which details the suffering of Kevin Mays, could help him in that regard. While the injury occurred more than two years ago, it stands to reason that Kevin Mays’s recovery—which has included multiple operations—has not gone as well as he hoped. Perhaps he needs care from sons Cade and Cooper, both of whom will be with the Vols next season. Kevin Mays is also from Knoxville, the same city as the University of Tennessee, meaning the 100-mile stipulation would be easily satisfied.
It doesn’t appear that Mays and UGA are separating on good terms. Obviously, his parents are suing the school. But more than that, Mars (his attorney) contends that someone at UGA leaked notice of the lawsuit to a member of the media. Rivals.com was the first to report on the lawsuit. UGA flatly denies the accusation.
Sports Illustrated will keep you posted on key developments.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.