As we head into Super Bowl week a foggy haze continues to hover over the NFL taking many forms, the most recent being President Obama’s comments about the sport of football in general and Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard’s theory about the future of the NFL. A more serious story that is clouding Super Bowl week comes in the form of Junior Seau’s family filing a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL.
Seau’s ex-wife Gina Seau, his four children and Beth Hoffman, the trustee of his estate, are suing the NFL claiming the former linebacker’s suicide was the result of chronic tramautic encephalopathy (CTE) which was caused by repeated hits during his playing career. Seau’s family is highlighting NFL Films in the lawsuit claiming the NFL glorified violent play through videos sold by NFL Films. NFL Films is a company owned by the NFL which produces most of its video content with the exception of live coverage of games.
In addition to suing the NFL, the Associated Press reports the Seau’s family is also suing helmet manufacturer Riddell Inc. claiming it was “negligent in their design, testing, assembly, manufacture, marketing, and engineering of the helmets”. Basically everything…including the kitchen sink.
The complaint details physical as well as behavioral symptoms demonstrated by Seau as early as the mid-90’s including “dizziness and other symptoms of concussion,” with a “noted change in his behavior and functioning.” In addition the complaint claims that Seau suffered from “erratic” behavior and showed “emotional instability”.
The lawsuit also contends that Seau became “a compulsive and manic gambler” which led to “gambling binges” and losses of “significant amounts of money”.
The NFL’s lawyers will likely begin fighting this lawsuit by asking for dismissal based on the statute of limitations having run. A statute of limitations sets the maximum time after an event has occurred that legal proceedings may be initiated.
If Seau was exhibiting symptoms through 2009 when the NFL came forward in front of Congress, acknowledged the problem and began taking action to remedy it, then the statute of limitations clock started ticking from that point on and the suit will likely be dismissed. The only exception may come with the discovery rule. The discovery rule allows for a delay on when the statute of limitations begins. If an injury was not discovered until a period of time after the injury occurred, the statue of limitations begins when the injury is discovered. In this case however, because the complaint details symptoms Seau suffered many years ago, the discovery rule will likely not help.
If the suit is not dismissed, Seau’s family will have to prove that Seau developed CTE from the hits he took while playing and that the NFL deliberately ignored and concealed evidence of the risks associated with repeated blows to the head and brain injuries from those hits. Seau’s family would have to prove this “beyond a preponderance of the evidence”, meaning they have to show there is more than a 50% chance that the NFL’s “acts or omissions” led to Seau developing CTE which eventually caused his death.
The suit against Riddell Inc. is a product liability lawsuit. There generally are three different types of product liability claims: manufacturing defect, design defect, and failure to warn. In this case Seau’s family is including all three of these claiming that Riddell Inc. was “negligent in their design, testing, assembly, manufacture, marketing, and engineering of the helmets” used by NFL players. A basic negligence claim requires the plaintiff (in this case Seau’s family) to prove:
- Riddell Inc. owed a duty to Seau and his family
- Riddell Inc. breached that duty
- The breach was the actual cause of Seau’s injury
- The breach was the proximate cause of Seau’s injury AND
- That Seau’s family suffered actual quantifiable injury or damages
Because of the statute of limitations it will likely be difficult for Seau’s family to prevail in this case as well. In the unlikely event the case is not dismissed prior to trial, it will be difficult to prove that Riddell fell below the duty of care it owes to those who use their products. If the case goes to trial, Riddell will likely have to show its entire process of creating the helmets including research, testing, design, manufacturing, and distribution. As long as Riddell shows they exercised ordinary and reasonable care in the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of the product as well as providing sufficient warning labels, Seau’s family will have a tough time winning this case.
According to the AP, Seau’s family has issued a statement: “We know this lawsuit will not bring back Junior. But it will send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations”.
Although Seau’s family may not win this lawsuit in court, it seems like they are more concerned with raising awareness of concussions in the NFL and in forcing the league to make changes. The question is, will these changes hurt the popularity of the game? Would you want to watch an NFL without the hard hitting plays we see every week?