Why Corey Liuget's Lawsuit Could Impact the Relationship Between Pro Athletes and Trainers
Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget recently filed a federal lawsuit arguing that a well-known personal trainer is to blame for Liuget’s four-game PED suspension to start the 2018 regular season. Liuget’s complaint, which will be tried in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, contends that trainer Ian Danney committed battery when he allegedly injected Liuget with a prohibited substance. Liuget, who is eligible to play for the Chargers (2–2) in this Sunday’s game against the Raiders (1–3), insists that Danney now owes him $15 million in compensatory damages plus unspecified punitive damages.
If successful, Liuget’s lawsuit could motivate trainers to change their business practices when working with NFL players and with other highly paid professional athletes who are subject to comprehensive drug-testing policies. For example, trainers may be more inclined to require professional athlete clients to expressly consent in writing to every ingredient in every treatment and to explicitly assume the risk of any unknown substances. These clients may also be asked to sign indemnity and waiver of recourse clauses that would contractually bar them from later suing their trainers. Trainers may also feel the need to purchase additional malpractice insurance or be required by insurers to pay higher premiums, either of which could lead trainers to raise their client fees. Any professional changes would need to be made in compliance with trainers’ accreditation requirements and duties.
Key facts and allegations
The Chargers picked Liuget, 28, in the first round (No. 18 pick) of the 2011 NFL draft, and the former Illinois star has spent eight season wtih Los Angeles. Liuget has enjoyed a very productive NFL career, starting in 100 of the 102 regular season games in which he’s played. Although he has not earned a spot in the Pro Bowl like fellow Chargers defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, Liuget excels at defending against the run and also chips in with the occasional sack. Liuget’s NFL career became very lucrative in 2015. In June of that year the Chargers signed him to a 5-year, $58.5 million ($30 million guaranteed) extension.
Weighing 300 pounds in a 6' 2" frame, Liuget has periodically battled injuries, including broken metatarsals in both feet. Those injuries, along with the gradual bodily wear-and-tear from playing NFL football, led Liuget to seek training assistance several years ago. He hoped that doing so would enhance and prolong his time in the NFL.
In July 2015, Liuget began to train with Danney, who operates the Performance Enhancement Professionals training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. Danney is an accomplished figure. He competed in the 1998 Olympics as a member of the Canadian bobsled team and later became a renowned trainer. His clients have included dozens of NFL players, Olympic athletes and boxer Mike Tyson. Danney has appeared in several SI articles over the years, including in regard to his work with Tim Tebow and Jermichael Finley. Armed with a degree in biochemistry from the University of Alberta, Danney has been particularly heralded for blending science and sports while maximizing the impact of supplements. To that end, Danney has been praised for helping players in their joint health and neurotransmitter boosting. Until becoming a defendant in Liuget’s lawsuit, Danney appears to have avoided legal questions about his competence. SI found no other federal cases involving Danney as a party. A review of court records in Arizona only turned up a traffic citation.
For a while, Liuget seemed to enjoy working with Danney. According to Liuget’s complaint, between July 2015 and January ’18 Liuget paid Danney about $1,500 per week for personal training during the offseason and an additional $40,000 for in-season therapy. As retold by Liuget, Danney supplied Liuget with soft-tissue treatment, post-game hydration and vitamin infusions.
Of primary relevance to the lawsuit, Danney also injected Liuget with a substance that Danney allegedly described as an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory. This injection occurred in November 2017. Liuget insists that the injection contained a prohibited substance and that Danney lacked the proper state licensing to engage in medical care where the skin is punctured. Liuget also stresses that he only employed Danney as a private personal trainer during the relevant time period.
Two days after the injection, Liuget complied with the NFL’s collectively bargained testing policies on substances of abuse and PEDs. He did so by providing a routine urine sample to Drug Free Sport, which administers the collection of samples for the NFL. The sample indicated the presence of a substance prohibited by the NFL and not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for human use.
In January 2018, the NFL informed Liuget of the positive test. Two months later, Liuget was suspended for four games. The league’s testing policy is tantamount to a “strict liability” standard in that if the player tests positive, the player is guilty. No excuse, even one that elicits sympathy and understanding, can exonerate the player. Liuget is hardly alone in facing an unexpected PED suspension: In March, free-agent quarterback Mark Sanchez was suspended four games and felt “blindsided” by the positive test result.
A strict liability approach might seem unnecessarily rigid and potentially unfair, particularly when a player proves that the intake of the prohibited substance was accidental or offers an excuse that conclusively shows another person deserves blame. Nonetheless, the underlying logic of a strict liability standard is that players are ultimately responsible for substances that enter their bodies and therefore they ought to be vigilant in repelling any prohibited substances.
Liuget does not contest that the prohibited substance was present in his body at the time of the test. He also recognizes that the positive test leads to a four-game suspension. “I made a mistake and take full responsibility,” Liuget said in March. However, Liuget asserts that he had no idea the substance was in his body. Liuget further swears that he has never knowingly used a prohibited substance. With that in mind, Liuget blames Danney for surreptitiously importing this substance into his body. “As part of my training program,” Liuget expressed in March, “I placed my trust in someone who, in hindsight, was not well-versed in the NFL’s policy on banned substances.”
According to Liuget’s complaint, Danney admitted to Liuget’s representatives that he injected Liuget with a prescription medicine but denied that the medicine was a prohibited substance. Liuget maintains he had no idea that Danney would have injected him with a prescription medicine of any kind, especially since (according to Liuget) Danney lacks the proper licensing for dispensing such medication.
Liuget is represented by well-known sports attorney Peter Ginsberg. Based in New York City, Ginsberg currently represents golfer Vijay Singh in his case against the PGA Tour. He previously represented former New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma in Vilmas’s “Bountygate” defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The most obvious form of economic damage suffered by Liuget consists of lost paychecks from the four-game suspension. Those paychecks amount to $233,750 in wages.
Liuget, however, contends that Danney also inflicted far more punishing—and lasting—forms of damage. Most significantly, Liuget maintains that the Chargers used the drug test result as bargaining leverage to extract nearly $15 million from Liuget. According to Liuget, the team reacted to the drug test result by threatening to cut him if he did not renegotiate his contract to one of shorter duration and of substantially lower value. This threat, Liuget explains, would not have occurred had it not been for the drug test result and the accompanying suspension. In April, Liuget and the Chargers negotiated a new deal that expires a year earlier, in 2019. Liuget also complains that the “maximum total compensation over a three-year period under the renegotiated contract is $14,730,000 less than under his previous contract” and that this new contract omits a “performance-based escalation, which, under his prior contract, offered [him] the opportunity to earn an additional $6 million over the duration of the contract.”
In addition, Liuget claims to have lost a lucrative endorsement deal as a result of the stigma of the drug test result and the ability of endorsed companies to easily exit endorsement deals through “morals clauses.” Liuget also maintains that the stigma resulted in him forfeiting opportunities to secure other endorsement and sponsorship deals. Along those lines, Liuget asserts that he has suffered “public humiliation and emotional suffering” along with irreparable damage to his public image. An athlete who tests positive for using a PED is often labeled a “cheater.” Such a damning label can stick with him or her for the duration of a career.
The legal claims
Liuget’s complaint contains 16 claims. It includes several types of claims for battery, which refers to intentional and unconsented contact that harms another person. Here, Liuget maintains that he never gave permission to Danney to inject him with a prohibited substance or a prescription medicine. Along those lines, Liuget insists that he would have never given permission given his concerns over the legality of Danney dispensing medical care.
Liuget also pleads multiple intentional misrepresentation claims against Danney. In doing so, Liuget contends that Danney falsely represented that all of his treatments complied with relevant laws and NFL rules. Danney, Liuget charges, either knew he was lying about those assurances or was reckless in not taking the time to determine the validity of the assurances. Either way, Liuget stresses that he reasonably relied on Danney’s guarantees to his detriment.
The complaint also features claims for interference with Liuget’s contractual relations. Here, Liuget stresses that by injecting him with a prohibited substance, Danney damaged Liuget’s relationship with the Chargers and the businesses with which he had, or could have had, endorsement relationships. As noted above, Liuget contends that the Chargers demanded a massive reduction in Liuget’s contract as a direct result of the drug test result.
In addition, Liuget asserts that Danney was negligent in conducting care. Liuget portrays Danney as breaching relevant standards of care for trainers by injecting Liuget with a prohibited substance. Liuget maintains it was foreseeable that Danney’s conduct “would harm Liuget and jeopardize his professional football career.”
Danney’s likely defenses
In the weeks ahead, Danney will answer Liuget’s complaint. The answer will deny many, if not nearly all, of Liuget’s assertions. To that end, expect Danney to insist that he has complied with all legal requirements in dispensing care. He will likely also proclaim that he never injected Liuget, or any athlete, with a prohibited substance and that Liuget testing positive reflects Liuget intaking a substance outside of his relationship with Danney. To bolster that point, Danney will probably highlight that Liuget had not (apparently) tested positive in the more than two years of working with Danney.
Danney is also poised to underscore that his other NFL clients have not violated NFL drug tests. If Danney’s clients have shown a pattern of violating tests, it would be easier to connect Danney to Liuget’s test. The absence of such a pattern should work in Danney’s favor, especially if the treatments he provided to Liuget were similar to ones that he provided to other NFL players.
Danney will also likely note that Liuget had multiple avenues for confirming the validity of a treatment before undergoing it. Liuget could have checked with the NFL or the NFLPA, including through a phone app, about any substances that might enter his body through a treatment. If Liuget was uncertain about the contents of any ingredients, he could have refused them until the ingredients were validated and confirmed to not be on the list of banned substances. This point seems especially true of an injection, which in many instances involves a medicine rather than an over-the-counter substance. To that point, Danney will stress that Liuget consented to the injection.
Also, expect Danney to rebut Liuget’s extensive view of damages. With regularity, NFL teams demand that veteran players restructure their deals—with the implicit, if not overt, threat that if the player refuses he will be cut. Liuget blaming the positive drug test as the reason the Chargers demanded the contract restructuring may be difficult to show. Danney could note that Liuget’s numbers from the 2016 and 2017 seasons fell far short of his most productive seasons (2012 to 2014). In fact, Liuget recorded only 1.5 sacks and 43 tackles in the 28 games he played in during the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons, a far cry from the 12.5 sacks and 68 tackles he recorded in the 32 games he played in during the 2012 and 2013 regular seasons. While the decline in statistics might partly reflect different defensive schemes and injuries, rather dramatic differences in statistical performances are relevant in determining a team’s motivations as to player salaries. Likewise, Danney might point out that Liuget’s playing time is declining with the emergence of Chargers defensive lineman Darius Philon, who is 24 years old and has started in place of Liuget. Such a decline would be grounds for the Chargers to ask Liuget to earn less.
Danney will also offer any contractual agreements he reached with Liuget in which Liuget waived away the right to bring potential legal claims against Danney. Likewise, Danney will produce any agreements that indicate Liuget failed to adhere with relevant contractual provisions.
Other trainers will be watching
In the world of personal trainers for pro athletes, Danney is a major figure. Liuget’s case against him will attract notice. If Liuget succeeds in proving that Danney broke the law and owes him millions of dollars, some trainers with professional athlete clients will reassess their own practices. Personal trainers know that these athletes on pro teams are also treated by team trainers and other health care professionals. Personal trainers will be more inclined to demand that their clients, in writing, consent to each and every treatment. While such a practice might seem annoying and legalistic, it could also protect those trainers.
Likewise, trainers may demand that clients contractually relinquish rights they have to sue trainers in the event of a dispute. To be clear, the enforceability of contractual waivers is a complicated topic and relevant laws on waivers vary by state. Still, trainers can attempt to use contractual agreements to diminish the possibility of liability—a real concern when a client, like Liuget, could conceivably lose millions of dollars because of a treatment.
Insurers of personal trainers could also take a more involved approach to the relationship between trainers and clients. If the risk of liability increases for trainers, insurers will likely raise premiums, costs which trainers might pass on to their clients. Trainers might also purchase supplemental insurance to offset the risk of a major payout in a lawsuit.
SI will keep you posted on developments in Liuget’s case and the possibility that he and Danney reach an out-of-court settlement.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.