A ruling by a Florida appeals court on Friday has reduced a $10 million damage award to $200,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a University of Central Florida football player who died following conditioning drills in 2008.
The court, however, denied the University of Central Florida Athletic Association a new trial, which it also was seeking.
A three-judge panel rejected UCF’s arguments it was denied a fair trial based on limited presentation time and ruled that a medical release form Ereck Plancher signed did not expressly waive his rights to sue UCFAA.
It did rule UCF’s power of control over its athletics association is sufficient for sovereign immunity afforded to state agencies in civil judgments, reducing the original award the 19-year-old’s parents received in July 2011. Any award above $200,000 now has to be approved by the legislature.
“Ereck remains in our thoughts, and we honor his memory as part of our football program,” UCF spokesman Grant J. Heston said in a statement. “The ruling about sovereign immunity confirms our long-held position about this important issue, and we are pleased with the decision.”
The court wrote, in part, that UCFAA “is wholly controlled by and intertwined with UCF, in that UCF created it, funded it and can dissolve it, in addition to oversee its day-to-day operations.”
Also, because of the ruling the court reversed the awarding of attorney’s fees and costs of more than $2 million. The ruling means that UCFAA will not have to pay these costs.
In a written statement on behalf of the Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid said they were “disappointed” that the judges found UCFAA should get sovereign immunity and wrote “the result of this ruling guts the outcome of the trial court’s judgments, as well as the verdict rendered by the jury that heard all the evidence.”
“For the Plancher family and the sake of all Floridians, we are extremely troubled by such a broad expansion of sovereign immunity to a corporation such as the UCFAA when there is very little, if any, state involvement in its actual operations,” the statement continued in part. “To allow immunity in such circumstances creates a dangerous precedent for student-athletes and their families.”
The statement also said that the family would seek a review at the Supreme Court of Florida.
Judges Vincent Torpy and C. Alan Lawson both offered concurring opinions in the court’s rulings. Judge Wendy Berger agreed with their opinions that UCF was entitled to limited sovereign immunity, but disagreed that the medical release Plancher signed was ambiguous.
However, Berger said that opinion was separate from her overall view of the case.
“My opinion regarding the enforceability of the release should not be interpreted to condone the egregious conduct of the UCFAA coaching staff,” Berger wrote in the 28-page ruling. “Indeed, as it appears and as the jury found, it was both the coaching staff’s actions and inactions that led to the tragic death of Ereck Plancher. It is difficult to comprehend how one human being can ignore another in obvious distress or prevent someone else from offering aid to one in distress, but, inexplicably, that is what happened here.”
The player’s family filed a wrongful death suit against UCF in March 2009, alleging coaches and other school officials failed to do everything possible to save Plancher’s life. The case went to trial in June 2011.
The Orange County medical examiner and three experts hired by Plancher family attorneys testified during the trial that he died from complications of sickle cell trait.
A jury found UCFAA was negligent and awarded Plancher’s parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, $5 million apiece. UCF and its insurance company, Great American Assurance Company, appealed the verdict in May 2012.
During the civil trial Plancher’s attorneys presented evidence from four former UCF football players, including a former team captain, who all recalled a strenuous workout than UCF coaches and school officials originally said took place. The players also testified that Plancher was struggling throughout, gasping for breath at times.
They also alleged that no water or trainers were present during what one of the players said was a “punishment” workout for players coming back from spring vacation out of shape. They said coach George O’Leary cursed Plancher shortly before he collapsed and had to be carried outside by teammates.
UCF officials contended the school did everything necessary to save Plancher’s life. During their case they had players who were at the workout testify that water was available to players and argued that Plancher knew he had sickle cell trait and that it was actually a heart ailment that caused his death.