No WWE in Benoit wrongful-death suit -- only Dr. Astin and 'Distributors X, Y, Z'
IRVIN MUCHNICK - For SLAM! Wrestling
On Wednesday the family of Chris Benoit's wife Nancy brought down the civil litigation hammer, filing a wrongful-death lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Newnan, Georgia, over the June 2007 murders by Chris of Nancy and their son Daniel (which were followed by Chris's suicide).
But as was speculated in this space on Tuesday [Second anniversary of Benoit tragedy slams shut another door on reform], the target of the suit by Nancy's parents, Maureen and Paul Toffoloni, is not World Wrestling Entertainment. Rather, it is Dr. Phil Astin, Chris's personal physician, who already has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after the Drug Enforcement Administration busted him for wildly overprescribing drugs to his patients.
(Prosecutors told the sentencing judge that two Astin patients other than the Benoits had died as a result of the doctor's prescription abuses. One of these patients was Mike "Johnny Grunge" Dunham. The other was believed to be Sherry "Sensational Sherri" Russell.)
The Toffolonis' complaint introduces a new element to the Benoit mystery in its inclusion of three co-defendants, who are referred to as "Distributor X," "Distributor Y," and "Distributor Z." According to the complainants, the identities of these defendants are currently unknown to them, except to the extent that they are "for profit entities doing business in the State of Georgia" and are "manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and/or retail sellers of certain anabolic androgenic steroids, narcotic drugs, and/or controlled substances."
Dr. Astin himself is accused of being a proximate cause of the Benoits' deaths because of his negligent medical care and treatment of Chris, which began in June 2000. During that period, the complaint says, Astin's actions put Chris "under the influence of CNS [central nervous system] depressants, opioids and anabolic androgenic steroids," which impaired him mentally and triggered his homicidal-suicidal rampage across a weekend at the family's home outside Fayetteville.
Both individually and on behalf of Nancy and Daniel's estates, Maureen and Paul Toffoloni seek a jury trial and recovery of damages for "the full value of the lives of each decedent"; "final expenses, including funeral expenses"; and "compensatory damages for the fear, shock, mental and emotional trauma, and extreme pain and suffering endured by Nancy E. Benoit and Daniel Benoit prior to their deaths." The plaintiffs also ask for punitive damages flowing from the defendants' "willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, [with an assumption of] conscious indifference to consequences."
At least three motivations could underly the decision by the family and their attorney, Richard P. Decker, to structure a three-fourths-unnamed defense group. One may be the struggle to locate a culpable party with deep pockets. The only hope of recovering monetary damages from the broken and imprisoned Astin himself would almost certainly be through his malpractice insurer. The Toffolonis may be betting on discovery and new evidence generated by a trial to identify the Atlanta area non-licensed pharmaceutical sources of what we already know, through the Fayette County sheriff's criminal investigation and through the DEA's case against Astin, was Chris Benoit's astounding personal inventory of drugs.
The second motivation may be the need, for civil wrongful-death purposes, to establish something that was missing from the Astin prosecution: counts involving steroids and human growth hormone (not just painkillers and antidepressants). The network for those substances reaches beyond the doctor himself to the netherworld of online and other black-market dealers, and might involve recreational drugs as well.
A third motivation may well be grounded in pure principle -- in a simple determination by the Toffolonis to use the civil legal system to expose as much as they possibly can about the circumstances that led to the horrific loss of their loved ones.
"We are not money-hungry people and that is not what this is about for us," Nancy's sister, Sandra Toffoloni, told me last year. "We have lost everything. Everything. I firmly believe there is responsibility to be taken, not just by Christopher."
A facsimile of Wednesday's 15-page complaint can be viewed through my website at muchnick.net/toffolonicomplaint.pdf.
Guest column: Second anniversary of Benoit tragedy slams shut another door on reform
Chris Benoit double murder/suicide section
Irvin Muchnick's Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling's Cocktail of Death will be published this fall by ECW Press. Pre-order and other info is at benoitbook.com.