NCAA to Provide $70 Million to Settle Athlete Concussion Cases

Jul 30, 2014 12:01 am ET

July 30 (Bloomberg) -- The National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed to pay $70 million for the testing and diagnosis of student athletes who may have sustained head injuries during NCAA-sanctioned competition.

That agreement is part of a proposed settlement of almost a dozen lawsuits filed against college athletics’ primary governing body announced yesterday by plaintiffs’ lawyers and the NCAA. The accord, which doesn’t cover claims for bodily injury, is subject to the approval of U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee in Chicago.

Federal cases in Illinois, New York, Indiana and elsewhere accusing the NCAA of concealing the long-term risks of concussions were consolidated before Lee for pretrial litigation last year.

Similar claims by professional football players against the National Football League resulted in a preliminary settlement worth at least $675 million. That deal includes an uncapped fund to cover retired players’ medical costs from dementia and other neurological disorders tied to repeated concussions.

Approval Hearing

U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia has scheduled a Nov. 19 hearing on final approval of the NFL settlement.

The proposed NCAA medical-monitoring plan would make screening and evaluation available to college athletes “regardless of when they played, what sport they played, for how long they played, in which state they played or reside, or their age,” players’ attorney Steve Berman said in court papers filed yesterday.

It would run for 50 years from whenever the proposed plan receives final court approval, Berman told reporters after a hearing before Lee yesterday. The NCAA had said it covers any athlete who had competed at one of its member schools in the previous 50 years.

Stacey Osburn, a spokeswoman for the organization, didn’t immediately reply to a voice-mail message seeking clarification on the discrepancy. NCAA attorney Mark Mester also didn’t reply to voice-mail and e-mail requests for clarification.

Eight Lawyers

With eight lawyers standing before him, several more attending the proceeding via conference call and still more seated in the gallery, the judge declined to immediately grant preliminary approval.

Lee voiced concern that there’s uncertainty as to how the NCAA and plaintiffs lawyers will tell those covered by the accord about the proposed settlement.

The judge also heard an objection from plaintiffs’ attorney Jay Edelson of Chicago over the exclusion of personal injury class-action claims from the final accord.

After requesting additional briefing on those issues, he continued the hearing to Sept. 19.

The agreement with the Indianapolis-based NCAA includes changes to its concussion management guidelines, requires evaluations at the start of each sport’s season and bars a player who suffers a concussion from returning to play that day. An athlete with a concussion must be seen by a doctor before being cleared to play, according to yesterday’s filing.

“We have been and will continue to be committed to student-athlete safety, which is one of the NCAA’s foundational principles,” the organization’s chief medical officer, Brian Hainline, said in its statement. “This agreement’s proactive measures will ensure student athletes have access to high- quality medical care by physicians with experience in the diagnosis, treatment and management of concussions.”

Neurological Damage

Prevention and treatment of concussions has come into the spotlight in the past decade as doctors tied neurological damage, dementia and early death in athletes to repetitive head injuries.

The National Hockey League has also been sued for failing to protect players and concealing long-term risks from head injuries, even as doctors worked to find an easy and accurate way to diagnose the condition and researchers struggled to document and pinpoint those vulnerable to the ensuing damage.

About 3.8 million concussions stem from sports and recreational activities each year in the U.S., according to an Institute of Medicine report released last year.

The damage typically derives from a direct hit to the head or a violent collision that rocks the brain within the skull.

In some cases the damage is clear and a concussion is easy to spot, such as when the person passes out, can’t walk straight or is dazed and has trouble thinking. Symptoms can also emerge later, in the form of headaches, trouble concentrating and sensitivity to light and noise. They can also build over time with repetitive damage.

Not Reported

Some people, particularly competitive athletes, don’t report the symptoms, which can take weeks or months to resolve.

Bodily injury claims aren’t part of the NCAA settlement proposal, Berman said yesterday in a phone interview, because they require “individualized inquiry” incompatible with class- action litigation.

Each athlete would need his or her own doctor. Damages would be subject to different outcomes and variations in claimed loss of earnings, Berman said. He called individualized injury claims “the better route.”

Edelson, in court, said the proposed deal would not benefit most of the 4 million athletes covered by it while proving a boon to settling lawyers and to the NCAA which would no longer face mass litigation over personal injury claims.

He told reporters the organization had avoided “billions” of dollars in liability.

Berman, speaking separately, said Edelson was “flat out wrong.”

The case is In re: National Collegiate Athletic Association Student Athlete Concussion Litigation, MDL 2492, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).

--With assistance from Michelle Fay Cortez in Minneapolis.