On the night of Owen Hart’s death, 21 years ago next Saturday, Vince McMahon made the decision that the show must go on. Following Hart’s fatal fall from the rafters in the middle of WWE’s Over The Edge pay-per-view, the show continued, featuring matches on a canvas stained by Hart’s blood.
Dr. Martha Hart, the widow of Owen Hart, made her own decision. Her husband, she vowed, will never be celebrated by WWE in a Hall of Fame ceremony.
“I’d never want him recognized by a company responsible for his death and that has been so disrespectful to his family,” said Hart. “No, never.”
The question of Owen in the WWE Hall of Fame comes up yearly, from both his fans and peers. But Hart’s decision is by no means directed toward Owen’s fans, the ones who admired and cheered him, as well as grieved over his appalling death.
“Owen really loved his fans,” said Hart. “He loved his fans more than the people he worked for, and he spent a lot of quality time with his fans. It wasn’t an ‘us and them’ mentality. He enjoyed getting to know them as people.”
Owen’s death is the subject of the season finale of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring this Tuesday, and the title of the series sadly encapsulates this tragedy. The episode looks into Owen’s final days, which includes heart-wrenching footage with his family as well as a closer look at the circumstances leading to his death.
“I am very pleased with the Dark Side of the Ring episode on Owen’s final days,” said Hart. “They did an exceptional job telling the story, and it’s actually the story I hoped would be told. The episode is only 44 minutes and there is so much more to cover. Overall, they could not have done a better job.”
If anyone needs a reminder that there is no justice for the dead, simply familiarize yourself with the details of Owen’s death, which was completely avoidable. But for reasons that are still difficult to comprehend, two children were left without a father and a wife forever lost her husband.
Owen was killed when he fell over 70 feet and violently hit, chest-first, the top rope of the ring. He was in his Blue Blazer costume, and was intended to be lowered into the ring from above the rafters before his match against The Godfather. WWE had done similar stunts before, but the difference on this night was the equipment and the person doing the rigging.
“Everything was wrong, nothing was done properly,” said Hart. “In our lawsuit, we had every single top rigger in the business give us deposition and they all said how egregious and negligent the set-up was and how inappropriate the equipment was. The clip was meant for the sole use of sailboats. The whole design of it is to release on load, so they used the worst equipment and there was no redundancy. In the past, the WWE had used quality riggers to rig their stunts. The one they used was Joe Branam, who rigged everybody from Elton John to the Rolling Stones to Robin Williams. He did it the right way and Owen had no control over the stunt.
“They didn’t like the way that he was rigging Owen because they wanted him to be able to release [from the harness] when he dropped to the ground, but that isn’t possible when it’s done the right way. Joe Branam said he would not rig Owen that way, so instead they hired this hacker, Bobby Talbert, who had no business rigging anyone. Owen never questioned his safety because he assumed the company wouldn’t put him in harm’s way. And after he died in the ring, they scooped him up and went on with the show. When fans wonder why I don’t want anything to do with this company, hopefully this Dark Side of the Ring episode will answer those questions.”
In response to this article, attorney Jerry McDevitt from K&L Gates, WWE’s outside legal counsel, shared additional clarification surrounding the harness that released prematurely.
“The manufacturer of the quick release device, if there is anybody directly responsible for Owen’s death, it would have been the manufacturer for that device,” said McDevitt.
McDevitt did not agree with all of Hart’s statements in this article, but it is important to note that the manufacturer of the harness, Lewmar Ltd., settled in a lawsuit with WWE in 2003 over Owen’s death.
Hart eventually settled her wrongful death lawsuit against WWE, but one of the more distasteful parts of the aftermath were the legal battles pitting Hart against McMahon’s company.
“A lot of people might not realize that the WWE sued me,” said Hart. “We were suing them in Missouri [where Owen died] for the wrongful death of Owen, and they sued me for breach of Owen’s contract because it said in Owen’s contract that any lawsuit against them should be in Connecticut. They wanted to get it moved to Connecticut because there are no punitive damages awarded in Connecticut, so they sued me and I actually had to go hire lawyers in Connecticut and fight that lawsuit against them at the same time that I was fighting the wrongful death lawsuit.
“When I finished my lawsuit with WWE, I never kept track of wrestling. I didn’t know anything about what was happening, but they were selling merchandise since his death. The only time I became aware of that was after 10 or more years after they put a video out on Owen and his family. My lawyers said there were other videos, too. If they were putting out merchandise, they had to pay royalties, and I’d never received a penny. That was another lawsuit, and they fought me for three years until that case settled.”
In addition to Hart and her two children, Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, former WWE referee Jimmy Korderas and Chris Jericho also lend their insight to the Dark Side episode.
Noticeable by his absence is Bret Hart, one of Owen’s older brothers and biggest advocates.
“I can’t speak for all of the siblings, but I know that Vice Media reached out to Bret Hart,” said Hart. “He was approached and did not respond.”
Owen’s death was further complicated by struggles with the Hart family. Although they are not on close terms now, Bret supported Martha Hart in her legal battle following Owen’s death—something other Hart siblings chose not to do.
“Because of Owen’s family’s interference, everything was such a mess,” said Hart. “My lawyers were always sort of bugging me to put [a settlement] number on the table. I always said, ‘No, this isn’t about money,’ but WWE could afford to delay forever. So we put a number on the table, and they had something like 60 days to accept the offer. I got worried that they might accept the offer and the case would settle. Then where was Owen’s justice? I phoned my lawyer in a panic, and she said something to me that was so striking. She said, ‘Martha, in the end, all this case is ever going to amount to is money. No one’s going to jail, no one’s getting convicted.’ I was so deflated that, no matter how it would end, it was only going to be about money.
“Since I couldn’t get the justice that I wanted from the legal system, I created my own justice. That’s why I created the Owen Hart Foundation. We created something beautiful with that money. With the betrayal from the Hart family, them working against me, stealing documents, and the WWE suing me, it was such a disaster. This was a good solution to end it and carry on in a positive way.”
More than two decades after his senseless death, the wrestling world still longs for Owen. Though there will never be a WWE Hall of Fame induction, Hart believes this Dark Side episode, even if mired in tragedy, will also serve as a way for people to recall Owen’s brilliance in the ring and as a person.
“We’re happy that fans will have the chance to celebrate Owen’s life and career,” said Hart. “This will give a glimpse into the man behind the curtain and who he was as a human being.”