Former NFL Players Suing League Over Brain Injuries

Earlier this year, over 125 former NFL players, including Mark Duper, Ottis Anderson, and Jim McMahon, filed lawsuits against the N.F.L. in Los Angeles Superior Court and the United States District Court in Pennsylvania. The basic allegations are that the NFL, as well as the helmet manufacturer Riddell, knew that repeated concussions would cause traumatic brain injury and long term debilitating cumulative effects, such as memory loss, dementia, depression, and what is known as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is the more formal name for dementia pugilistica, or “punch drunk syndrome”, which was (not surprisingly by its name) a disease which used to be diagnosed in boxers after years of blows to the head. In CTE, which presently can only be diagnosed on an autopsy, the brain shows evidence of protein deposits called “tau” from damage to brain tissue from repeated blows.

The players have also claimed that in 1994, the N.F.L. authorized a study entitled “NFL Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury” and that this investigation incorrectly resulted in findings that multiple concussions did not lead to chronic cumulative damage to the brain. Thus, the players argue, they were never warned that multiple blows to the head could lead to the devastation of memory loss, depression, mood changes, dementia and severe headaches, along with CTE. Alternatively they have claimed that the findings of the study were fraudulently concealed and that the NFL did have evidence from the study of the long term debilitating effects of repeated head trauma.

Tragic deaths of former NFL stars have brought the CTE issue into the forefront, including, most recently, that of Dave Duerson, a star defensive back for the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears and later the New York Giants in their championship 1990 season who committed suicide in February of this year. Duerson was a successful businessman after his NFL career ended, but then began complaining to his family of headaches, blurred vision and a deteriorating memory in the months before his death. Duerson was so convinced that he was suffering from CTE that he shot himself in the chest, rather than the head, so that his brain could be studied by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Duerson’s suspicions were confirmed at autopsy when it was discovered that the Neuropathologist who examined his brain found indisputable evidence of CTE, with “no evidence of any other disorder.” Similarly, in 2002, Mike Webster, the hall of fame, four time Super Bowl Champion center for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their 1970’s heyday, died after years of anguish and cognitive dysfunction caused by damage to his frontal lobe from numerous concussions. Ironically, Webster was known during his playing career as an undersized, overachieving and disciplined ballplayer, who played for 17 seasons, yet he died after suffering from bad health, depression and having pled no contest to forging prescriptions to obtain Ritalin.

The players claim that their motivation for the lawsuit is threefold: to prevent present NFL players from suffering the same fate from repeated concussions; to implement a system by which players will receive the short term and long term medical care they need if suffering from brain injuries; and to obtain compensation for the injuries they suffered. The NFL’s defense is premised on the following: that the players knew of, and assumed any risks of injury when they played football; the NFL was not responsible for any of the injuries that the players suffered; and the appropriate forum for resolving the players’ claims, as contained in the collective bargaining agreement, is arbitration, not a jury trial.

Taking each of the NFL’s arguments in order, if I were arguing for the player’s in these cases, it seems clear that the original practice and thinking about helmet to helmet collisions and concussions was faulty. Routinely from the beginning of NFL history through at least the mid 1990’s, players and coaches would refer to severe collisions as “stingers” or “getting your bell rung.” If a team doctor was even summoned to check out the player, as long as he could answer a few rudimentary questions accurately, they would be allowed to remain in the game. There was tremendous pressure on the player to keep playing, particularly if the player was not a star and could be replaced.

The second argument by the NFL that the league is not responsible for the spate of injuries and deaths of former players is belied by recent changes that the NFL has now made in recognition of the clear evidence otherwise. Players who commit helmet to helmet penalties are now subject to suspension and fines. A player who suffers a concussion is not permitted to remain in the game under the new “return to play guidelines” implemented in 2009. Certainly, if that 1994 study did in fact warn of the dangers of repeated concussions and these warnings were concealed by the NFL, this would create significant liability problems for the league.

Lastly, it is blatantly obvious why the NFL would want to keep these cases in an arbitration setting. If a jury believes that the NFL concealed or lied about evidence of long term effects from repeated concussion or head injuries, there could be huge verdicts which would likely be more substantial that any potential arbitration determination.

Contact the Westchester County Brain Injury Attorneys online or toll free at 888-761-7633 if you are the victim of a brain injury from any type of accident for a free consultation with an experienced, aggressive trial attorney who will fight the defendants and insurance companies to maximize your compensation for the physical, mental and financial injuries you have suffered as well as for past, present, and future earnings and medical expenses.