Williamson v. Nike? Zion and the anatomy of a multi-million-dollar personal injury claim
One of the most common questions I hear from my Rhode Island personal injury clients is, “what is my case worth?” At the outset of a claim, this is almost impossible to answer, but as more details are uncovered, and as the client receives necessary medical treatment and misses time from work, the answer comes into greater focus. This post is about the anatomy of a multi-million dollar personal injury claim, using a recent sports event as an example.
Since the 2018-19 season tipped off last fall, Zion Williamson has been one of the most talked-about players in the basketball world. This despite the fact that he’s not yet old enough to share a glass of wine with LeBron James! NBA scouts rave about his combination of size and athleticism, and opposing NCAA players lose sleep over visions of Zion catching an entry pass on the block with no help defense around to prevent them from winding up on the wrong end of a poster-worthy photograph.
Zion—a 6-foot-7, 285 lb forward for the Duke Blue Devils—is expected to be the first overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft. But that isn’t all; it’s entirely reasonable to say that the success of at least one multi-billion-dollar business (whichever NBA franchise ends up with the #1 pick) is going to be resting on his shoulders for the next 5-10 years.
Earlier this week, however, Zion was injured in a freak play during the first minute of Duke’s first matchup of the year against bitter rival North Carolina. Thankfully, Zion’s injury is apparently minor: according to ESPN coverage, he’s been diagnosed with a sprained right knee, and is not likely to need surgery or miss significant time. Even so, the way the injury happened—and the magnitude of the possible lost value had his injury been more severe—are deserving of some coverage from a legal perspective.
First, we have the injury itself: Zion was dribbling from the wing into the paint, and began to turn his body near the free-throw line to use his size and strength to back down his defender. When Zion attempted to plant his left foot, his left sneaker—a Nike PG2.5 (named after Paul George, the NBA superstar who himself suffered a gruesome leg injury a few years ago)—quite literally came apart at the seams. The stitching which bound the sneaker’s upper portion to its sole simply tore apart, and Zion’s momentum continued carrying him to his left. In an effort to compensate, Zion’s right knee buckled under the strain of trying to bear the force of his enormous frame moving so fast.
In legal terms, this would be a “products liability” case—a subset of personal injury (or “tort”) law which seeks to compensate victims who are injured as a result of a defective or dangerous product. In Rhode Island, there are a number of different ways a plaintiff (the injured party who files suit) can pursue a products liability personal injury claim: they can claim the product had a defective design, that there was a defect in its manufacturing, that the manufacturer or seller didn’t provide proper warnings, and so on. However, the purpose of this post is to talk not about the “liability” aspect of the claim (that is, who is at fault for the injury) but rather the “damages” aspect of a claim (that is, how much should the plaintiff be willing to settle for in order to bargain away their right to have a trial in court).
In an ordinary Rhode Island personal injury case, there are three main components of damages: medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. The first two are called “special” damages because, usually, they can be calculated down to the penny, or at least determined with a high degree of certainty. For example, an MRI and CAT scan after a serious auto accident may cost $2,500, and a worker who is salaried at $50,000 per year and who misses six months of work will have $25,000 in lost wages. Pain and suffering, on the other hand, is also referred to as “general” damages because of the difficulty in affixing a monetary value to someone’s pain and suffering. However, insurance companies and Rhode Island attorneys can use formulas and prior jury and arbitration awards to guide their opinions and advice.
Let’s return to Zion. Thankfully it sounds as though he was not seriously injured—a very lucky break for both Zion and Nike! But, let’s say that Zion had instead blown out the ACL in his right knee—an entirely plausible outcome given the way his body was moving when his shoe gave out. And, let’s say that he fell from the #1 overall pick to the #15 pick (the middle of the first round, and a huge accomplishment for just about any aspiring basketball player) because the NBA teams were concerned about whether he would make a full recovery.
If I were Zion’s attorney, I would look to the NBA salary scales and argue that the injury cost Zion TWENTY-NINE MILLION DOLLARS in lost wages alone (this is the approximate difference in earnings between the #1 pick and the #15 pick in the draft over a five-year NBA rookie scale contract). Then, I would try to obtain written expert opinions from a few NBA team executives (ideally, including one from the GM of the team who wound up with the #1 pick) to prove that Zion would have been the #1 pick if not for the injury. After also factoring in the sizable medical bills which would be associated with surgery and rehabilitation of an ACL tear, and Zion’s pain and suffering, it would be a claim I would advise my client not to settle unless we started talking settlement figures over $30,000,000!
Settlements this size are not always limited to cases where a plaintiff is a high earner like an NBA player. In other cases, the pain and suffering element of the claim can be worth millions of dollars, most commonly when someone loses a limb, is permanently disfigured, or dies due to someone else’s negligence.
If you have been injured by a defective or dangerous product, an auto accident, a slip and fall, or suffered any other type of personal injury that you believe someone else is responsible for, you may need a Rhode Island personal injury attorney. Call me for a free, no-obligation initial consultation!