A new report on the investigation into the July 1 death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs hints at a looming legal fallout—a fallout that could implicate Angels employees with serious wrongdoing and lead to both criminal charges and civil litigation.
The report, authored by T.J. Quinn and published by ESPN’s Outside The Lines, details how federal agents initially learned from a review of Skaggs’s text messages that he regularly interacted with another Angels employee, director of communications Eric Kay, about obtaining oxycodone. Kay, according to Outside the Lines, admitted to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that he routinely provided Skaggs with oxycodone in recent years and abused it with him. Kay is a familiar figure to the Angels. He has worked for the team since the mid-1990s. As detailed below, Kay also claimed that he had informed two Angeles executives about Skaggs’s drug problem and that five other players used opiates while on the Angels.
A Tragic Death Tied to the Consumption of Opioid Painkillers
In August, the Tarrant County (Texas) medical examiner’s office revealed that Skaggs had died accidentally as a result of a noxious combination of alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone in his system. The 27-year-old Los Angeles native choked on his own vomit. The overdose occurred in a Southlake Hilton hotel room where the Angels were staying to play the Texas Rangers. Skaggs, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound left-handed pitcher, was by all accounts well-liked by his teammates. He had been a regular member of the Angels’ starting rotation since 2014.
As retold by Outside the Lines, Kay admitted to DEA agents that he was with Skaggs in the hotel room only hours before his death. Kay allegedly witnessed Skaggs snort two lines of oxycodone and a line of another substance that the 45-year-old public relations expert did not recognize. Kay, according to Outside the Lines, believes Skaggs was not snorting the oxycodone that Kay had provided. This is because the last time Kay had provided Skaggs with oxycodone was a day or two before the trip to Texas. Skaggs, from Kay’s experience, ordinarily used oxycodone immediately upon receipt. Skaggs also allegedly asked Kay to provide him oxycodone while in Texas, a request Kay could not meet.
Kay appeared to have developed a straightforward—and illegal—routine with Skaggs. Kay obtained drugs and Skaggs, whose salary was $3.7 million in 2019, paid for them. Outside the Lines reviewed Venmo transactions which indicate these transactions occurred over the last couple of years. Skaggs then shared some the drugs with Kay and together they would use them.
Kay, according to Outside the Lines, also revealed to DEA agents that he told his boss, Tim Mead, about Skaggs’s drug problem as far back as 2017. Mead served as vice president of communications for the Angels from 1997 until this past June when he became president of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
In addition, Outside the Lines reports on Mead visiting Kay in the hospital on April 22 as Kay recovered from a drug overdose. Kay’s mother, Sandy Kay, was also at the hospital. She and Mead allegedly had a conversation about Skaggs and drugs. The conversation was sparked by Skaggs sending Eric Kay a text with a request for drugs. Sandy Kay allegedly read the text and implored Mead and by extension the Angels to intervene so that Skaggs would stop badgering her son for drugs.
Outside the Lines interviewed Mead, who categorically denied any awareness of Skaggs using drugs. A spokesperson for the Angels similarly rejected insinuations that team officials had any knowledge of Skaggs using drugs. Although the second Angels official with whom Kay allegedly confided about Skaggs’s drug problem is not identified, this person apparently told Angels executives they knew nothing.
The Outside the Lines report is both stunning and damning. As detailed below, expect three different, but connected, legal narratives to emerge in the weeks and months ahead.
The medical examiner’s office regards Skaggs’s death as an accidental overdose of two drugs, oxycodone and fentanyl, and alcohol. Neither the Southlake Police Department nor the DEA has issued clarifying reports. However, there is no reason to believe that either law enforcement agency will offer a different explanation for Skaggs’s death. There were no signs of foul play, trauma or other indicia that would suggest a different causal account.
The fact that Skaggs’s death was an accident doesn’t mean persons couldn’t be criminally charged in connection with his death. An accidental overdose doesn’t happen spontaneously. There is a story behind how the person obtained drugs and the circumstances in which he or she used them. That story could reveal that crimes occurred at different moments and that numerous people willfully broke the law.
For starters, it appears that Skaggs obtained oxycodone and fentanyl, both of which are classified as Schedule II controlled substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act, through illegal means. These painkillers are only lawfully obtained through a physician’s prescription. Skaggs, it seems, obtained them through unlawful channels.
Kay, according to Outside the Lines, admits he supplied Skaggs with oxycodone. This admission of fact is also an admission of criminal activity—drug distribution and trafficking. Kay could thus be charged with crimes.
However, Kay is likely not viewed as a serious criminal by the DEA and U.S. Department of Justice. First, Kay’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, is quoted by Outside the Lines as saying that his client is not at this time considered a target of the federal investigation. Kay appears to suffer from a serious drug problem that threatens to ruin a successful career in public relations. He is currently on paid leave from the Angels while being treated at an out-patient drug facility. Assuming Kay’s distribution of drugs was limited to supplying Skaggs, he is less of a trafficker and more of a (still illegal) conduit.
Second, Skaggs’s death was caused by a combination of substances, not just oxycodone. Also, if Kay’s alleged retelling of events is accurate, another supplier provided Skaggs with the oxycodone that contributed to his fatal overdose. Such a fact-pattern distances Kay from Skaggs’s death.
What DEA agents likely want most from Kay is information on from whom he purchased drugs. Were they dealers connected to a gang? Were they health care professionals with access to oxycodone? The sellers could be selling to other people as well. They could be part of a network of manufacturers, importers, traffickers and dealers.
The more cooperative Kay is with investigators, the more favorable the legal outcome for him. He has likely been asked to share emails, texts, direct messages, computer program files, handwritten pages, phone records and other potentially relevant evidence. In interviews, Kay has no doubt been questioned about names and locations related to drug purchases.
Skaggs’s texts and other communications might implicate other suppliers of drugs. Kay believes he didn’t provide the oxycodone used by Skaggs on the day of the overdose. If this is accurate, Skaggs transacted with at least one other drug dealer for oxycodone. Also, it seems that Kay does not take responsibility for Skaggs acquiring fentanyl. This also indicates that Skaggs was transacting with another dealer. As Chris Ballard recently detailed in his story on former NFL player Jeff Hatch, fentanyl—a synthetic opioid often produced in other countries and transported illegally into the United States—is of substantial concern to federal law enforcement. The network of persons who may have been selling drugs to Skaggs could prove wide.
The drug network for Skaggs might not be the only one for Angels players. As mentioned above, Kay believes that five other players used opiates while on the Angels (it’s unclear if any or all of these players still play for the Angels). Kay reportedly named the five players to the DEA. If that reporting is accurate, it is almost certain that DEA agents have already closely looked into those five players and monitored their activities. It’s possible those players have been interviewed by DEA agents or face interview requests. If those players are engaged in the illegal purchase of drugs, they could be charged with crimes, as could those who sold them drugs.
The death of Skaggs could lead to litigation against the Angels and Major League Baseball.
One’s initial instinct might be to dismiss the prospect of a lawsuit. Skaggs was an adult. He chose to engage in drug use. By doing so, he voluntarily assumed health and career risks, as does any adult who partakes in illegal drug use. No one forced him to use drugs—it was his decision. Skaggs, as viewed by such a perspective, accidentally caused his own death.
End of story? Not so fast.
Legal causation is not nearly as straightforward. In law, blame can be shared among those with duties to monitor, supervise and protect.
In August, the family of Skaggs, who was married and whose mom is a softball coach, issued a statement. The statement emphasized that family members were “shocked to learn” that the manner in which Skaggs came into possession of narcotics “may involve an employee of the Los Angeles Angels.” The family has also hired Rustin Hardin, a well-known attorney (he has represented Roger Clemens, Scottie Pippen, Steve Francis, among others in legal disputes), to represent them.
The family could pursue a wrongful death claim against the Angels and, by extension, Baseball. The theory of the lawsuit would be that Skaggs died at least partly due to negligent actions and omissions by the Angels and those employed by the team. Kay, as detailed above, reportedly told DEA agents that he supplied Skaggs with oxycodone for a couple of years. It also appears that Kay’s own drug issues had been known to the team prior to Skaggs’s death, particularly since Kay was hospitalized for an overdose in April and his supervisor (Mead) allegedly visited him while there. If Mead knew about Kay missing work for a drug overdose, it would be logical that the Angels’ human resources staff probably knew as well.
Skaggs’s family might question whether the team took reasonable steps to monitor players and interactions between an employee with a known drug problem—Kay—and players. Along those lines, the family could inquire into whether Angels management found it unusual that a team press spokesperson with a known drug problem would spend substantial time with a player. Perhaps it is commonplace among big league clubs for public relations staff to hang out with players. Or perhaps it isn’t and warrants a second look.
Mead’s testimony would be crucial to understanding how the team supervised Kay and monitored him as compared to other employees. Likewise, Skaggs’s teammates could be called to testify as to the extent to which they knew of their teammate’s drug issues. They would be asked whether they found his interactions with Kay to be unusual and worthy of the team’s attention.
Both Mead and a team spokesperson issued statements to Outside the Lines expressing that neither Mead nor any Angels executive knew about Skaggs’s drug problem. It remains to be seen if these same denials would be made while under oath and under penalty of perjury.
The family could also highlight that Skaggs’s death occurred in a hotel room reserved by the Angels. Employers are generally responsible for the care of employees while those employees are acting within the scope of their employment. If Skaggs was traveling on vacation, the analysis would be different. But here he's traveling as part of his job. He would not have stayed at the hotel on the day of his overdose but for his employment.
If the Angels have workplace rules on periodically checking in with players in their hotel rooms, whether those rules were applied with Skaggs would be an important point. The fact that a fellow Angeles employee, Kay, saw Skaggs snorting drugs only a few hours before his overdose indicates that at least one other person who works for the Angels knew of Skaggs using drugs that day. Hotel surveillance cameras might reveal that other persons visited Skaggs’s room.
Defenses for the Angels
There are a number of potential defenses for the Angels. As a starting point, it appears Skaggs died because of his regrettable and tragic decision to use drugs and alcohol. Had he not made that decision, he presumably would have survived (though he might have suffered a drug overdose at a later date).
Skaggs also overdosed in a hotel room while outside the view of the team. The team could argue that it checked on Skaggs in the same manner it checked in on other players in his situation: he had pitched two days earlier and was not scheduled to pitch again for three days.
The team can also stress that its ability to supervise players is limited by the collective bargaining agreement signed by MLB and Skaggs’s own union, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, as well as by basic principles of employee privacy. The team can’t secretly record conversations between players and employees without their consent (in fact, doing so under California law is a crime).
Similarly, drug testing is not handled by teams. Drug testing is conducted as part of a joint MLB-MLBPA drug prevention and treatment program. This program features an independent program administrator. Stated differently, the Angels can insist it is not the team’s fault that drug tests failed to show that Skaggs used drugs. To the extent there is blame for the failed testing, it would rest with the league and the players’ association. The two have negotiated a policy that doesn’t randomly test players for opioids. Opiod testing is only authorized with reasonable cause, meaning a legitimate reason to test a specific player.
Uncertainty over the precise cause of death could also emerge as a legal defense. Alcohol, which presumably Skaggs as a person older than 20 lawfully obtained, played a role. Studies have shown that mixing opioids and alcohol can trigger dangerous and in some cases fatal respiratory problems. A lack of certainty over the precise cause of death could make it more difficult to establish liability.
Implications for MLB
The least important legal question raised by Skaggs’s death is whether MLB might punish the Angels.
As detailed by Quinn, teams are required to notify the commissioner’s office of any information suggesting that a player might be abusing drugs. This information could later be used to justify reasonable cause testing. The Angels provided no such notice about Skaggs. This is not surprising since the Angels deny they knew about Skaggs having a drug problem. If evidence indicates the Angels failed to report, the league could punish the team, most likely by a fine. Baseball is also sure to explore the allegation that five other Angels players are using opioids.
The larger issue for baseball is the possibility that the joint drug-testing policy doesn’t work. This policy, as noted above, does not randomly test for opioids. If players are abusing opioids without detection and if “reasonable cause” is too difficult to establish, both the league and union will need to revisit the policy. Testing and monitoring procedures could be reconsidered.
Baseball also knows from the steroids scandal of the early 2000s that federal investigations are controlled by the government, not baseball. These investigations can lead to congressional hearings and threats by members of Congress to take away from leagues and players’ associations the power to formulate and administer drug testing. Furthermore, Baseball also enjoys an exemption from federal antitrust law that, while narrowed by the Curt Flood Act of 1998, still empowers the league to operate minor league baseball and the MLB draft without the worry of federal antitrust scrutiny. Congress could threaten to further limit the exemption unless MLB acts according to the government’s wishes.
In short, the ramifications of Tyler Skaggs’s death could spark significant changes in the sport. Whether the legal system forces those changes remains to be seen.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.