The New York Times reported this week that the family of Derek Boogard, the ex-New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild defenseman, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NHL. The suit alleges, among its many claims, that the league failed to protect Boogard by allowing him to return too quickly to play after suffering numerous concussions, despite the league’s knowledge that repeated blows to the head can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE, which causes dementia, depression, dizziness, loss of balance and coordination, has recently been determined as the cause of death in the autopsies of numerous NFL and NHL players, including former defensive stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, who were hard hitting players that endured numerous violent head collisions during their NFL careers. In the cases of both Seau and Duerson, they committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest so that their brains could be examined for CTE.
The lawsuit by the family of David Duerson against the NFL, who committed suicide at age 50 in 2011, was consolidated with those of approximately 4,200 former National Football League players who have sued the league for brain injuries suffered during their careers. Mr. Boogard, who was known as an “enforcer” during his six year NHL career, which lasted 277 games, was found dead of an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers on May 13, 2011. His last game was on December 9, 2010, when he was diagnosed with what is believed to be one of many concussions he suffered during his short NHL career.
The Boogard suit also alleges that the league was well aware of, and failed to monitor, his drug use and numerous prescriptions, and in fact facilitated the serious addiction that Mr. Boogard had to “prescription pain medications, sleeping pills, and painkiller injections”, which were prescribed by “physicians, dentists, trainers and staff.” Boogard apparently received approximately 13 injections of Toradol, which is a masking drug for pain, and the suit claims that in the 2008-2009 season, in a 16 day stretch, physicians prescribed Boogard 150 pills of Oxycodone, a controlled substance. There are also allegations that the NHL knew that Mr. Boogard had failed numerous drug tests in his last year, yet the league never took any disciplinary action against him, as its own substance abuse program mandates.
There are huge legal implications for both the NFL and NHL as a result of the lawsuits brought by the families of Mr. Seau, Duerson, and Boogard, in conjunction with the cases of the 4,200 players whose cases have been consolidated in federal Court. It is fairly clear that the NFL knew for many years that players were suffering serious side effects from repeated concussions, but it is only in recent seasons that rules have been placed in effect to prevent players from re-entering games in which they have “had their bell rung” (euphemism used for a concussion) and requiring additional medical clearance before players may return to action after suffering a diagnosed concussion. Clearly, if these cases proceed to trial and result in a liability finding against the NFL and or NHL, the damages awarded to the players and their families could be astronomical and would have a significant financial impact on professional sports as a whole. Without question, however, something must be done to curtail the excessive violence in football and hockey, with the protective head gear clearly inadequate in many cases to prevent long term brain damage to the players.