Former Houston Texans punter Brett Hartmann has sued the county agency that operates Reliant Stadium, blaming "unsafe turf" for a possibly career-ending knee injury.
The 6-foot-2 Hartmann signed with the Texans as an undrafted free agent in July 2011. He played in the first 12 games last season before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament and fracturing a bone in Houston's 17-10 win over Atlanta on Dec. 4.
Hartmann's attorneys filed the lawsuit Thursday in Harris County District Court, naming venue-management company SMG and the Harris County Convention and Sports Corporation (HCCSC) as defendants. It doesn't name the Texans, but includes past comments critical of the stadium's surface by nose tackle Shaun Cody, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy.
"Brett has no ill will toward the Texans," said Gene Egdorf, one of Hartmann's attorneys. "If anything, Brett wishes he was with his teammates and hopes this action will help keep his teammates safe for the rest of this season and into the future."
The Texans (8-1) play Jacksonville (1-8) at Reliant Stadium on Sunday. Houston coach Gary Kubiak defended the condition of the field.
"I think our field is great. I think our guys do a great job," Kubiak said. "That's all I got to say."
The lawsuit says several doctors have told Hartmann that his knee remains "unstable" and that he needs "additional surgery, possibly quite extensive." He says he hasn't been contacted by other NFL teams since the Texans cut him in August 2012 and fears his playing career is already over.
"I'm kind of at a loss for words, not knowing what's going to happen," Hartmann said.
The stadium recently installed removable AstroTurf to be used for non-NFL events. For Texans games, workers piece together more than 1,200, 8-by-8-foot palettes of real grass with forklifts. Hartmann caught his left foot in a seam between palettes and was placed on injured reserve. The lawsuit says Hartmann suffered a "significant and career-threatening injury."
Willie Loston, executive director of the HCCSC, also defended the surface and says the county "will defend the lawsuit vigorously."
"We have no doubts that the field system is a safe system," Loston said in a phone interview.
Loston says the turf is inspected by stadium officials and NFL referees before every Texans game.
"I cannot imagine that, between the referees and the coaches on both teams, that anyone would allow a team to take a field they thought was dangerous," Loston said.
Following surgery, Hartmann was suspended for the first four games of the 2012 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Egdorf says Hartmann tested positive for Adderall, which he took to help with a sleep disorder.
The Texans signed veteran Donnie Jones and cut Hartmann in the preseason. Hartmann's suspension was reduced to three games, but then he was suspended for eight games in September for testing positive for a prescription weight-loss drug that he says he never took.
Hartmann didn't appeal the additional suspension because he was afraid the process would drag on and also threaten his chances of playing in 2013. He said he lost 30 pounds in the weeks following his initial knee surgery.
"There'd be no reason for me to take a weight-loss drug, because I'd already lost so much weight from surgery," Hartmann said. "I was kind of baffled. If we would've fought it, and it got delayed, it would've carried over to next season."
Hartmann has undergone two knee surgeries and plans to have a third one as early as mid-December. He not only tore his ACL, but also suffered a "fracture at the proximal fibula," the lawsuit said. Hartmann says his medical costs have been covered under the league's collective bargaining agreement, but is seeking unspecified damages in the lawsuit.
"I just want other players that are going to be playing on the field and that are currently playing on the field to be safe," Hartmann said. "I want to make sure their careers aren't taken from there."
In the final week of the 2009 regular season, Patriots receiver Wes Welker tore his left ACL and MCL when his knee buckled on the Reliant turf. Belichick said afterward that the turf was "terrible" and "inconsistent" and his comments were included in Hartmann's lawsuit. Egdorf says he did not contact Welker about joining the complaint.
The lawsuit also included a comment attributed to Dungy saying that the Colts were "definitely concerned about the injury factor" when playing at Reliant Stadium. It also includes a comment attribute to Cody saying that players "complaining about the field being torn up" after the Atlanta game.
Egdorf emphasized that the turf was damaged for the Atlanta game because the stadium hosted a high-school game the previous day.
"You have a specific issue about that day," Egdorf said. "But the primary point is that the design they have, with these squares, you've got four seams on every square. Think of how many squares that is on the field. It's just not safe for a professional athlete to be stepping on those — these big, strong, fast guys who are getting hit, and we see this all the time."