On Thursday, we celebrated Kobe Bryant's 34th birthday by making jokes about how his 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors back in 2006 was fueled by pepperoni pizza and waxing hopeful about how we want the brilliant, humble, fiery Bryant of old back this season. On Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers star celebrated a very different occasion — the out-of-court settlement of a years-long lawsuit that accused him of assault, battery and outrageous conduct for forearming a Memphis Grizzlies fan in the chest during a game at FedExForum.
The incident in question took place during an 85-73 Grizz win on Nov. 14, 2005. While running after a loose ball headed out of bounds, Bryant collided with Bill Geeslin, an insurance agent from Blytheville, Ark., who was sitting courtside. Geeslin came away from the collision with a bruised lung cavity and decided to take legal action, according to Lawrence Buser of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
"I recall a fast-paced incident seeing him come to me, running into me and then forearming me," Geeslin said in a 2008 deposition. "He intentionally forearmed me in the chest. He did not apologize. He walked away and pushed — he kind of pushed his arm toward me and glared at me and walked away."
He surmised that Bryant was angry that his team was losing or that the referee called no foul on the Grizzlies.
Geeslin, then 49, died two months after his 2008 deposition, but his estate is continuing with the suit with his mother, Betty Geeslin, substituted as the plaintiff.
There is no allegation that the contact with Bryant caused his death, but Geeslin previously said he felt like "a human punching bag" and filed suit because he felt violated and that Bryant should not be able to "inject such pain."
Geeslin — and, subsequently, his estate — felt that such treatment and the suffering that followed entitled him to an amount "exceeding $75,000," according to Buser. That seems like a level of damage that not even "The Narcissist" Lex Luger's surgically enhanced forearm could inflict with a single blow, but then, I am not a doctor.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee dismissed Geeslin's suit in 2010. U.S. District Court Judge S. Thomas Anderson wrote in his summary judgment that "no reasonable juror could conclude that the Defendant intended to harm the Plaintiff when he effectively pushed himself off of Plaintiff's chest to get up and back in the game," that "a reasonable juror could not conclude that Defendant's action was intended to cause Plaintiff harm," that "a reasonable juror could not possibly conclude that [Bryant pushing off Geeslin] under these circumstances constitutes an offensive contact," and that the single forearm was not conduct "so outrageous that it is not tolerated by a civilized society."
Last December, though, the appeals process kicked in. From Dan Sewell of The Associated Press:
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled Thursday that a federal district court was right to dismiss the fan's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. But the lower court was told to take another look at the lawsuit's claim of assault and battery. [...]
The western Tennessee district court ruled that fans sitting courtside assume the risk of such contact. But the three-judge appeals panel said that wouldn't include the alleged forearm shove.
Jury selection on the assault and battery case was set to begin Monday; evidently, neither Bryant nor his attorneys wanted to see that happen, agreeing to undisclosed terms with Geeslin's estate on Friday.
If you're anything like Tom Lorenzo at the great Grizzlies blog Straight Outta Vancouver, the fact that this case wound its way through the American legal system for nearly seven years and resulted in Bryant having to pay anything, even if it's not the full $75,000 from Geeslin's original suit, strikes you as sort of "ridiculous."
[...] I don't mean to make light of [Geeslin's] death or his sustained injuries, but really, when you're sitting courtside at an NBA game, you do take on the risk of having large men twice your size barrel into you. It comes with the closeness of it all.
It's a risk you take — a costly one, no doubt. But unless we don't want our players going hard all 48 minutes, or unless we want to add a barrier between the court and the fans, we probably shouldn't be setting a bad precedent by suing a player for "going hard."
On the plus side, all those players who've been looking for an excuse to avoid hustling to the baseline after an errant lead pass or sprinting to the sideline for a backcourt deflection now have it — it's sound legal and financial strategy. We now know that Eddy Curry has been on the right side of jurisprudence all this time. Thanks, The Law!