NFL Settles for $765 Million in Concussion-Related Lawsuits

The National Football League has agreed to settle the massive class action litigation brought against it by more than 4,500 former football players who alleged that the league intentionally downplayed the risks of concussion-related head injuries and their long-term effects on cognitive decline. Former United States District Judge Layn Phillips, the court-appointed mediator, announced that the NFL will contribute $765 million to provide medical benefits and injury compensation for retired NFL players. The settlement will also pay for medical and safety research, and cover litigation expenses for the former players. The proposed settlement still needs to be approved by United States District Judge Anita Brody.

Lawyers were due back in court on September 3. Instead, Judge Phillips announced in court files on August 29 that the case has settled. She stated that

[t]his is a historic agreement, one that will make sure that former NFL players who need and deserve compensation will receive it, and that will promote safety for players at all levels of football.

The plaintiffs in the suit include at least 10 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon. About one-third of the league’s 12,000 former players joined the litigation against the NFL since 2011. In addition, a few hundred “gap” players — those who played in the league without labor contracts in place — are party to the lawsuits. These athletes would likely succeed in their right to sue since labor contracts usually requires mandatory arbitration.

The players involved in the suit varied widely in age and professional experience. Some played on practice squads and never stood on the field during a regular season game. Based on this variety, commentators were reluctant to think that a settlement could occur as quickly as it did, as many plaintiffs sought different outcomes in the suit. For instance, some older retirees wanted money as soon as possible, whereas younger players wanted to hold out for more, anticipating many more years of medical bills.

The lawsuits accused the league of hiding known risks of concussions for decades. The former players also alleged that the NFL actively concealed studies relating to the risks of head injuries on the field to protect the league’s image and keep players on the football the field. As a result of the league’s actions, these players claimed to have suffered a wide array of cognitive ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and advanced dementia. Not surprisingly, the NFL has denied any wrongdoing. It maintains that it never deliberately mislead players about head injuries, and relied on the best science available at the time to create concussion policies through its Mild Traumatic Brian Injury Committee (MTBIC).

All in all, settlement of the case was likely advantageous to all parties involved. The league spent tens of millions of dollars in the California insurance row battle to determine which insurers would be responsible for the league’s defense alone. Further, Judge Brody had not yet issued a decision on the league’s motion to dismiss the claim because it was pre-empted by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement and therefore belong in arbitration — a motion which was filed in July of last year. The thought of taking the case through discovery, which would involve the examination of thousands of medical records, press releases, and untold documents, could have stretched the dilemma out for years. In the mean time, players who are currently afflicted with CTE and other cognitive disorders would continue to suffer with no relief in sight. For instance, the first few years of the litigation alone saw the suicides of several notable former players like Ray Easterling and Junior Seau — suicides attributable to CTE and other related disorders.

Still, the settlement leaves many intriguing questions unanswered. What did the NFL actually know with regards to the risks of concussions on long-term player health? Did it actually bury relevant science as the plaintiffs claimed? Who, if anyone in particular, was responsible for the decisions which injured so many former players? What is clear is that the plaintiffs will now be able to move forward with their lives, having pocketed some settlement cash in lieu of those answers.

The quick resolution of the lawsuit has almost certainly given the league a reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Although the $765 million settlement sum is a substantial amount of money, it is far less than the billions of dollars in liability that some analysts predicted. Further, the NFL brings in billions in revenue each year, making this class-action lawsuit a mere bump in the road when considering its long-term financial well-being.

‘HISTORIC’ Settlement Reached

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