The family of late Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, who died as a result of drug-induced asphyxiation two years ago, filed two wrongful death lawsuits on Tuesday against the Angels and club officials. The lawsuits were brought in California and Texas by Skaggs’ widow, Carli Skaggs, and his parents and were filed before applicable statutes of limitation expired. The litigation raises important questions about the extent to which a team is responsible for the health and safety of players and the degree of responsibility borne by players to refrain from using illegal narcotics.
The family seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages to be determined at trial. As an immediate response, an Angels spokesperson dismissed the allegations as “baseless and irresponsible.”
Skaggs died in a Fort Worth hotel room the Angels had booked for a road trip to play the Rangers in June 2019. According to the local medical examiner’s office, Skaggs died with alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone in his system. The federal Controlled Substances Act classifies them as Schedule II controlled substances.
Skaggs, who was 27 years old, allegedly obtained oxycodone pills from the club’s director of communications, Eric Kay. ESPN’s Outside the Lines has extensive reporting on the buyer-dealer relationship between Skaggs and Kay, including Venmo records and other materials indicating an unusually close bond between a player and staff member. Kay, who is alleged to have supplied drugs to at least five other Angels players, faces federal criminal charges in Texas that could result in a prison sentence of 20 years to life. His trial is set for Aug. 16.
Kay, prosecutors allege, supplied pills to Skaggs while the two were engaged in team activities—an important point for the Skaggs’ family if it were to establish vicarious liability on the part of the Angels. The team would more likely be considered legally responsible for Kay’s illegal acts if they occurred within Kay’s scope of employment, rather than on his own time.
Rusty Hardin and other attorneys for Skaggs’ family contend the Angels acted illegally by failing to protect Skaggs from what are portrayed as serious and known dangers. The lawsuits note that Kay “had a long history of drug abuse” while employed by the Angels, including an overdose and several rehab trips. Why then, one of the lawsuits asks, did “Kay [have] complete access to players, day and night both off the field and on the field?” The complaint further charges the Angeles “knew, or should have known” that players “were trying to play through the pains and injuries associated with the long baseball season.” In that same light, the family’s attorneys demand answers for letting Kay “hang out with players in the locker room, on the team plane, and in their hotel rooms.”
Tim Mead, the club’s former VP for communications, is also named as a defendant. He’s depicted as having specific knowledge that Skaggs and Kay were using drugs together and failing to take corrective steps.
In order to prove the Angels are liable, the family needs to establish that the club breached a duty of care toward Skaggs, and that this breach, in turn, constituted a legal cause of Skaggs’ death.
The family’s litigation focuses on Angels officials purportedly knowing that Kay was a “drug addict” who they watched spend substantial time with players, some of whom were in pain from the wear-and-tear of the season. The lawsuits contend the Angels either knew or should have known that Kay was dealing drugs. This assertion ties to duty and breach: The Angels, the complaints charge, owed Skaggs a duty to provide him a safe place to work, yet “with conscious indifference,” the team breached this duty by employing Kay.
The Angels’ spokesperson also highlighted that the team hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an “independent” investigation, which, he says, “confirmed that the [team] did not know that Tyler was using opioids, nor was anyone in management aware or informed of any employee providing opioids to any player.”
In the weeks ahead, attorneys for the Angels will answer the complaints and mount a defense.
As a starting point, the team will vigorously dispute the central factual assertion that Angels officials knew, or had reason to know, Skaggs was buying drugs from Kay. That is the key fact, upon which the litigation hinges.
Beyond factual challenges, expect club attorneys to raise such defenses as:
— The team’s ability to monitor players while they’re in hotel rooms and other locations outside of club property is limited by privacy considerations. Employment law principles contained in player contracts, the collective bargaining agreement and state laws—including in regard to monitoring employees’ communications—also limit oversight.
— The team’s knowledge about a player’s drug use is governed by the joint MLB-MLBPA drug prevention and treatment program, which involves an independent program administrator. If that program didn’t indicate Skaggs had a drug problem, the team might not have had reason to know of one.
— The team might argue it complied with standard protocols/industry norms for checking in with players in Skaggs’ situation. A starting pitcher, Skaggs had pitched two days earlier. His next turn in the rotation wouldn’t take place for another few days. If team officials interacted with Skaggs as they normally would with a starting pitcher in-between starts, it would help the team show it acted reasonably.
— The team will likely describe Skaggs’ cause of death—which family members (and prosecutors) blame on Kay dealing an oxycodone pill laced with fentanyl—as a murky topic. The team could underscore that Skaggs, as an adult, bears some degree of personal responsibility for his own choices to buy and use drugs. The role of alcohol, which Skaggs (presumably) obtained lawfully, in the death could also be suggested as a key cause.
— The team might also contend that its approach to Kay was one of empathy, wherein it tried to help a club official with a drug problem overcome the issue. That depiction would contrast with the family’s depiction of the team as neglectful or callously indifferent.
The family would attempt to rebut those defenses by arguing, among other points, that the team should have detected Kay’s unusual behavior with players and that federal prosecutors blame Kay for Skaggs’ death.
Should the litigation advance and should a settlement not occur, Angels officials, as well as teammates, could be compelled to turn over emails, texts and other sensitive records relevant to the case. MLB would be closely watching, especially if the Angels failed to follow MLB rules concerning notification of the commissioner’s office of players suspected of drug issues. Further, MLB and MLBPA may want to revisit drug testing procedures if players are abusing drugs and not testing positive for them.
Barry M. Bloom contributed to this story.