Boxer Knocks Out State’s “Special Relationship” Defense In His Negligence Claim Against New York State Athletic Commission

“In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade” – Paul Simon, 1968. In Gamache v. State Of New York, 106968, decided 11/26/08, Joey Gamache, a professional boxer, alleged that the State Athletic Commission (“Athletic Commission”) improperly conducted the weigh-in for a professional boxing match which permitted his opponent to be 19 pounds more than the agreed upon maximum, and then allowed the match to occur while his opponent wore 8 ounce boxing gloves instead of the proper 10 ounce gloves, resulting in permanent injury.

In what the decision states is a case of first impression, Court of Claims Judge Melvin L. Schweitzer held that based upon New York’s statutory and regulatory scheme governing boxing, the New York State Athletic Commission owes a duty of care directly to licensed boxers under its jurisdiction and control to ensure compliance with statutory and regulatory mandates.

Mr. Joey Gamache was scheduled to fight Arturo Gatti on February 26, 2000, in an agreed-upon modified junior welterweight bout in which both sides previously had agreed the maximum weight would be 141 lbs.  The claim alleged that at the weigh-in of the boxers conducted at Madison Square Garden by the Athletic Commission the day before the fight, Mr. Gamache was accurately weighed in at 140 1/4 lbs., but Mr. Gatti was inaccurately recorded as weighing 141 lbs., when, in fact, he weighed much more than that as evidenced by the fact that the next day, right before the fight, the sponsor, Home Box Office (‘HBO’), recorded Mr. Gatti as weighing 160 lbs. Mr. was knocked out in the second round and allegedly suffered permanent and career-ending injuries.

Claimants further alleged that because Mr. Gatti’s weight was falsely recorded at the weigh-in, he was allowed to fight with 8 oz. gloves instead of the 10 oz. gloves all fighters who exceed 154 lbs. are required to wear. It was the customary practice to hold weigh-ins on the day before a fight because fighters tend to dramatically diet and/or dehydrated in order to make the prescribed weight for the fight.  The fighters then have enough time to rehydrate themselves in order to regain their strength and stamina in time for the bout.

The key hurdle to the viability of the negligence cause of action was the long-standing rule in New York that, in the absence of some special relationship creating a duty to exercise care for the benefit of particular individuals, liability may not be imposed on a municipality for failure to enforce a statute or regulation.

The court found, however, that this case presented an exception to the rule based upon the statutory and regulatory scheme governing boxing.  The court stated: “If any regulatory regime can be said to be within that narrow class of cases in which a duty runs from a governmental entity directly to a benefitted class, and where the law is best read to assure that government must be made to bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring compliance with the statutory and regulatory mandates, this is it.”

Causes of action were plead sounding in negligence, fraud and breach of contract. Only the negligence cause of action survived the State’s summary judgment motion. The court discussed extensively the history of boxing and the development of boxing regulation in New York State.  The common law of New York contained no specific offense for engaging in prize fighting, although those engaged in such contests were answerable for assault and battery, or breach of the peace or riot, depending on the circumstances.

In 1856, because of the perceived brutality of the fights and unsavory aspects accompanying it, the State Legislature enacted a Penal Code provision completely banning prize fighting in the State.  This continued for more than fifty years until 1911 when certain boxing exhibitions were exempted from the Penal Law prohibitions as long as they were held under the jurisdiction and control of a newly created State Athletic Commission with the power to make stringent rules governing the conditions under which the contests could be held.  In 1920, the so-called Walker Boxing Law was enacted which further strengthened the Athletic Commission’s authority to provide for rigid supervision of all who participate and of the methods of conducting the matches.

The court observed that Judge Fuld noted, ‘ it may be fairly assumed that the Legislature was at least as concerned with the physical welfare of the contestants themselves.’ Rosensweig v. State of New York, supra at 410.  The Athletic Commission, accordingly, has been ‘vested with sole discretion, management, control and jurisdiction’ of boxing contests and ‘over all licenses to any and all persons’ who participate in such contests (Title 25 of McKinney’s Unconsolidated Laws of NY 8906).  In furtherance of this authority, the Commission promulgated rules governing them. (19 NYCRR Ch VII).

Specific aspects of the present-day regulatory scheme that has evolved that the court cited include the Athletic Commission’s obligation to determine in the first instance whether two fighters are suitable opponents, its authority to reject the match if it is not in the best interests of the health of either, its power to enforce at a match a licensed boxer’s failure to make the weight at which he agreed to fight, its requirement of having a representative present at the match with complete on-site authority over the bout, the requirement that each boxer is required by the regime to have on-going direct contact with the Athletic Commission throughout, from the time each signs the Athletic Commission’s required form of contract, to the time each steps on the scale to be weighed by the Athletic Commission’s representative, to the time each dons gloves under the direct supervision of that representative in his dressing room, to the time the representative tells each fighter he may leave that room to proceed to the ring for the fight.

At any point along the way and until the Athletic Commission-appointed ring officials–independent contractors–assume responsibility for the conduct of the bout itself, the Athletic Commission and its agents are in direct control of everything that happens. The Athletic Commission’s representatives are seated at ringside and its inspectors have reserved places in each boxer’s corner.  The Athletic Commission may summarily suspend a boxer’s license, without prior notice, for a violation of its rules.

More specifically, Joey Gamache alleged that the Athletic Commission failed to enforce two (2) explicit rules:
(1) stopping a fight between junior welterweights in which there is a weight differential in excess of 11 lbs. (19 NYCRR 214.8), and
(2) in a fight involving contestants over 154 lbs., the fighters are supposed to wear 10 oz. gloves rather than 8 oz. ones since the 10 ox gloves provide additional padding.

The court contrasted this situation to the one in the case it considered closest to the one before it, a case where the complaint was that the Athletic Commission failed to inspect boxing gloves, but there was no explicit regulation requiring the Athletic Commission’s agents to inspect boxing gloves for alteration by removal of padding. Collins v. State of New York, 162 Misc 2d 770, 776 [Ct Cl 1994], affd, 224 AD2d 273 [1st Dept 1996].The court concluded that the regulatory regime for boxing is not simply a program ‘of oversight in which the role of government is, in the main, administrative and advisory’, but rather one where the regulatory body is directly responsible for a specific bout between two fighters, contrasting this extensive regime with lead paint regulations.

The court rejected the State’s argument that ‘because the weigh-in was a discretionary determination performed by a New York State official, the acts complained of [conducting a faulty weigh-in] do not give rise to liability against the State, even if the conduct was negligent,’ in the absence of a special relationship.  The court stated that ascertaining weight from a scale does not involve ‘reasoned judgment’.

The court continued, “When a person is weighed–be it a judge weighing himself on a bathroom scale, a nurse weighing a patient in a doctor’s office or an Athletic Commission official weighing a boxer to determine his eligibility to fight in a certain weight category–he or she simply gets on the scale and the needle moves or the counterweights cause the beam to float until each comes to rest on the weight that is registered. If the act of weighing is done honestly and carefully, the result is one number.” The court granted summary judgment to the State on claimant’s fraud claim because there could be no fraud once claimant conceded that he participated in the fight believing that his opponent was significantly over the stipulated weight.

The court found that such knowledge did not require dismissal of the negligence claim, holding that this merely created a possible issue of comparative negligence for the trier of fact to determine. Claimants’ contract claim failed because no contract existed between Joey Gamache and the defendant.

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