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Could UFC be liable if coronavirus spreads at UFC events?

‘We’re regulated by the government,’ might not be enough to keep the UFC out of court

UFC 249 Khabib Nurmagomedov Tony Ferguson MMA News Shakiel Mahjouri COVID-19 Coronavirus Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Don’t be surprised if UFC president Dana White rolls out one of his favorite catchphrases when the promotion restarts its fight schedule.

“We‘re regulated by the government!” When White makes that claim during the coronavirus pandemic, it will be for a very specific reason: the hope of avoiding liability.

One thing the Fertitta brothers, the former owners of the UFC, loved to stress was that the promotion ran toward regulation in the early days of their time at the helm. With that, the UFC worked with state athletic commissions, which mandated pre-event safety measures including physical examinations of the competitors. The athletic commissions put those safety measure in place to ensure UFC fighters were healthy enough to battle inside the octagon.

Some states like California, Nevada and New Jersey have robust pre-fight mandates. Other states, like Virginia are less strict. However, if the UFC and its fighters adhere to those rules, the promotion can always say it did what the commission — the government! — required before the event to ensure fighter health and safety. That way, if something related to a fighter’s health occurs inside the octagon, the UFC can blame the failure on the athletic commission. In other words, White can claim, “we‘re regulated by the government,” — even if that government does a woeful job on pre-fight fighter safety.

Which brings us to today and the coronavirus pandemic.

If the UFC holds an event, even an event without a crowd, and they do so under the guidance of a commission that does not require pre-event and post-event coronavirus and COVID-19 testing and maybe even post-fight self-quarantine regulations, the UFC can still claim it did everything the athletic commission required. This is is frightening for the fighters, their camps, their families and everyone they come in contact with traveling to and from the events.

But what about the others inside the arena on fight night? Even without a crowd, a UFC event requires a substantial number of people. Judges, referees, commentary crew, camera crew, UFC officials, commission officials, seconds, doctors, cut men and women, sound crew, ambulance transport crews, production crew and arena crew are all on hand during a closed UFC event. What about them? Those individuals do not fall under the purview of the state athletic commission. What happens if a non-competitor who was not tested for coronavirus or COVID-19 falls ill? Who is liable then?

And what if the UFC rushes back to action and allows ticketed fans to attend events, even in small numbers? Will the UFC be liable if an outbreak of coronavirus takes place at one of those cards?

Another thing to consider is what if the UFC is the acting athletic commission at an event? Yes, the UFC has a set protocol for pre-fight fighter safety when it acts as the commission, but in that case, can the promotion fall back on the “we’re regulated by the government” clause? Without knowing where UFC 249 will take place, even without an audience, this is something that has to be considered?

Attorney and Sports Law Analyst Dan Lust had the following to say about the UFC’s situation via email:

These are the kinds of million dollar question facing the entire sports landscape: when is it safe to return and what has to be done to avoid liability?

For the UFC, even if they explicitly follow the guidance of the athletic commission, it does not necessarily mean that they are 100% completely immune from liability. Instead, in the law, we would look to see what equates to “reasonable” conduct by those hosting or organizing events under the circumstances.

For example, if fans attended a UFC event and a large number tested positive for COVID-19, they could sue under the premise that the UFC was negligent in opening their doors. Here, though the failure to test fighters for COVID-19 or quarantine post-fight could be “reasonable” according to the athletic commission, it is not automatically viewed as “reasonable” in a court of law.

As for causation, individual fans would have difficulty establishing that they contracted the virus at the UFC event; however, as a whole, if many contracted it within days this could help overcome that barrier. It’s the same concept behind food poisoning lawsuits against restaurants, i.e., if all those experiencing symptoms attended the same restaurant - on the same night - they may be able to convince a court or a jury that the food that night was unsafe. This same logic could be used to apply to an alleged outbreak at a UFC event.

Still, there is no way to truly know the answers to these questions in the absence of past legal precedent on point. The fact remains that sports and entertainment will return eventually and, when that happens, it’s up to those in charge to provide a reasonably safe venue for all. What that means exactly is anyone’s best guess since the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in truly uncharted territory.

Ever since this pandemic began, White has stressed how much the UFC cares about fighter health and safety. We might be at the point where we find out if White’s claims are true.

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