Hart died on May 23, 1999 when an equipment malfunction occurred during his entrance from the rafters of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., at the WWF's Over the Edge pay-per-view event.
On May 23, 1999, Hart fell to his death in Kansas City, Missouri during the Over the Edge pay-per-view event. Hart was in the process of being lowered via harness and rappel line into the ring from the rafters of Kemper Arena for a booked Intercontinental Championship match against The Godfather. In keeping with the Blazer's new "buffoonish superhero" character, he was to begin a dramatic entrance, being lowered to just above ring level, at which time he would act "entangled", then release himself from the safety harness and fall flat on his face for comedic effect—this necessitated the use of a quick release mechanism. It was an elaboration on a Blue Blazer stunt done previously on the Sunday Night Heat before Survivor Series 1998.
This time, something went wrong with the stunt harness, apparently triggering the release mechanism early as he was being lowered. Hart fell 78 feet (24 m) into the ring, landing chest-first on the top rope, approximately a foot from the nearest turnbuckle, throwing him into the ring. According to Bret Hart's autobiography, Hitman, at Over The Edge Owen was initially planned to descend from the rafters with a midget wrestler scissored between his legs - ironically, the same midget wrestler used to parody Bret himself on Raw shortly after the Montreal Screwjob. Had this been the case, both men would likely have been killed. The idea was nixed only hours before the event. In Mick Foley's autobiography Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, he claims that following the fall, Hart attempted to sit up and did so before falling back. This was confirmed by Bret Hart in Hitman.
Hart had performed the stunt only a few times before and was worried about performing the stunt at the Kemper Arena due to the height involved. Hart's wife Martha has suggested that, by moving around to get comfortable with both the harness and his cape on, Hart unintentionally triggered an early release. TV viewers at home did not see the incident or its aftermath—at the moment of the fall, a pre-taped vignette was being shown on the pay-per-view broadcast as well as on the monitors in the darkened arena. After, while Hart was being worked on by medical personnel inside the ring, the live event's broadcast showed only the audience. Meanwhile, WWF television announcer Jim Ross repeatedly told those watching live on pay-per-view that what had just transpired was not a wrestling angle or storyline and that Hart was hurt badly, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation. Hart was transported to Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, where he was pronounced dead on arrival; some believe he died in the ring. The cause was later revealed to be internal bleeding from blunt chest trauma.
The WWF management controversially chose to continue the event, though they were unaware of the severity of Hart's injury at that time. Later, Jim Ross announced the death of Hart to the home viewers during the pay-per-view, but not to the crowd in the arena. While the show did go on, it has never been released commercially by WWF Home Video, and to this date no footage of Hart's fall has ever been officially released.
In the weeks that followed, much attention was focused on the harness Hart used that night, especially on the "quick release" trigger and safety latches. When someone is lowered from the rafters in a harness, there are backup latches that must be latched for safety purposes. These backups may take some time to unlatch, which would have made Hart's stunt difficult to perform smoothly. Therefore, it was apparently decided that it was more important not to have the safety backups, because it would be easier for Hart to unlatch himself.
Hart left behind a widow, Martha, and two children, Oje Edward and Athena Christy. Three weeks after the event, the Hart family sued the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) over how dangerous and poorly planned the stunt was, and that the harness system was defective. After over a year and a half into the case, a settlement was reached on November 2, 2000, which saw the WWF give the Hart family $18 million that was distributed among the Hart family. The manufacturer of the harness system was also a defendant against the Hart family, but they were dismissed from the case after the settlement was reached. Martha used the funds to establish the Owen Hart Foundation. Martha wrote a book about Hart's life in 2002 called Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart.
In his DVD set Bret "Hit Man" Hart: The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be, Bret said that he wishes he had been with the WWF the night Owen's accident happened so he could have stepped in and prevented him from going through with the stunt.
Raw is Owen is the name given to a special live episode of WWF Raw is War that aired on May 24, 1999, the night after Hart's death. It was broadcast live from the Kiel Center in St. Louis. It featured shoot interviews from his fellow wrestlers. According to Raw Exposed (a special that aired before the first Raw airing on its return to USA Network on October 3, 2005), WWF management gave all wrestlers on the roster the option of working or not. Nevertheless, ten matches were booked with no angles.
The show began with all the wrestlers of the WWF (except the Undertaker) standing on the entrance ramp; Vince McMahon, Linda McMahon, and Stephanie McMahon were at the front of the ramp. Howard Finkel called for a ten-bell salute. Hart's former Nation of Domination comrades were emotional, most notably Mark Henry, who read a poem that he wrote in memory of Hart. A tribute video narrated by Vince then played on the TitanTron. Throughout the broadcast, personal thoughts on Hart in the form of shoot interviews with various WWF Superstars were played. Before the first commercial break, such thoughts were aired from Mick Foley and Bradshaw. Foley noted that Hart was his son's favorite wrestler and had proudly gotten a haircut like Owen's, although he also said his son didn't quite understand that "nugget" was not a term of endearment. Bradshaw talked about how Hart spent less money on the road than most wrestlers because he wanted to retire early and spend time with his family. Owen's friend and Nation of Domination partner The Rock also made a short speech. The broadcast ended with Steve Austin coming out for a special salute to Hart by climbing the turnbuckle and performing his famous beer guzzling routine, and leaving one beer in the ring 'for Owen'.
The tribute show scored a Nielsen Ratings score of 7.2, making it one of the highest rated shows in Raw history. Shawn Michaels, in his Heartbreak and Triumph autobiography, notes that "Owen is the only guy you could have a 2-hour show for, and no-one would say a bad word about him." The next day, WWF taped the episode of Raw for May 31, 1999. During that show, Jeff Jarrett defeated The Godfather to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship, the title Hart was booked to win at Over the Edge for the third time. Jarrett screamed Hart's name as the belt was handed to him.