Can UFC Referees be Sued for Negligence?

With the recent legalization of mixed martial arts in New York, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has scheduled an event to occur on November 12, 2016 at Madison Square Garden. Specifically, the passing of New York Senate Bill 5949 § 1001 has legalized mixed martial arts in the state; “[c]ombative sports conducted under the supervision of the commission under the supervision of an authorized sanctioning entity . . . are hereby authorized. Authorized combative sports include amateur and professional boxing, wrestling, sparring, kick boxing, single discipline martial arts and mixed martial arts . . .”

While the Bill seems to require extensive supervision in tournaments, once the fighters are in the “octagon,” the referee is the only supervisor and “arbiter” of the fight. According to UFC Rules and Regulations, “the referee is the sole arbiter of a contest and is the only individual authorized to stop a contest . . .” This begs the question: once in the “octagon,” can a referee be charged with negligence for “making a bad call” and endangering the life of a fighter?

In order to establish negligence, it must be shown that the referee (1) has a duty to the injured fighter, (2) breached that duty, (3) referee’s breach was a proximate cause of the injury, and (4) the fighter suffered damages caused by the breach.

There is evidence of unreliable and, arguably, negligent referees within the UFC. For example, in the past, UFC referee Dan Miragliotta has arguably acted negligent in his failure to stop fights prior to serious injury. Specifically, in a match between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Thiago Tavares, Nurmagomedov hit Tavares over ten times while Tavares barely moved on the ground before the fight was ended by Miragliotta. (Note: While it is not unusual for fighters to receive multiple blows on the ground, the timing of the referee stoppage can be brought into question.)

How are these referees permitted to maintain their positions even after making negligent calls? Are their wrongful actions disregarded due to the liability waiver form signed by fighting participants? Or is it the inability to specifically indicate which blow caused the injury that protects these unreliable referees from legal accountability?

While UFC referees’ lack of responsibility is concerning, fighters in New York should be comforted to know that, “with the signing of the [NY] bill, . . . the safety of all participants will be a priority by requiring $1 million accident insurance policies to cover medical costs associated with life-threatening brain injuries sustained in the match.”

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