Last month, two former football players for Purdue University hit the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Big Ten Conference with a proposed class action lawsuit, claiming that both organizations failed to inform them about the risks associated with football-related head trauma.
The former players, Timothy Statton and Michael Rose, state that they sustained multiple concussion-inducing injuries while they played for Purdue during the late 1990’s. Despite this, the plaintiffs claim that the NCAA and Big Ten never disclosed the “overwhelming amount” of medical evidence concerning repeated concussion trauma, nor did they provide any policies or protocols concerning concussion management. The players intend to head up a class of other previous student-athletes who suffered head trauma playing for Purdue from 1952 to 2010.
This proposed suit is one of many similar actions plaguing the NCAA and other sports organizations in recent years. Nearly 50 lawsuits have been filed within the last year containing similar allegations.
Naturally, the knowledge of expert witnesses has been vital in the avalanche of football-associated concussion litigation. As with many such suits, Stratton and Rose’s suit cited several studies about the risk of repeated head trauma, including reports by famed neuropathologist Bennet Omalu.
Omalu, who serves as the Chief Medical Examiner of San Joaquin County, California, is board certified in neuropathy and forensic pathology and has served as an expert witness in hundreds of civil and criminal cases since 2009. He is especially known for his findings concerning chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former football players. The 2015 film “Concussion,” in which Omalu was portrayed by actor Will Smith, focused Omalu’s impact on professional football.
Several similar suits brought against the NCAA by former student athletes were consolidated in 2013, and in July of 2016, a district judge granted preliminary approval for a $75 million dollar settlement deal between the NCAA and the plaintiffs. Of that amount, $70 million is slated to go toward a fund with the purpose of screening current and former student athletes for concussions and other sport-related injuries. The rest will fund other research into concussions which would not have been possible otherwise.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a preeminent neurosurgeon and concussion expert, testified as an expert witness for the student athletes in this class action suit. Cantu, who has served as a senior advisor to the National Football League’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, as well as the NFL Players Association’s Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, does not think the NCAA has done enough to inform and protect student athletes against head trauma.
“I do think the NCAA has not, through the years, first-hand functioned in observing the health and safety of their athletes,” Cantu stated. “They have kept injury statistics and this, that and the other, but they haven’t really overviewed individual schools in terms of whether they’re following (concussion protocol policy) they’re supposed to have put in place.” If the $75 million settlement is approved at a final hearing in may 2017, Cantu will serve on a panel which will oversee the program.
In sport-related concussion litigation going forward, expert witnesses will undoubtedly play a crucial role. In addition to evaluating the injuries themselves, experts can provide testimony concerning the adequacy of school policies for avoiding and managing such injuries.