The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s bid for preliminary approval of its proposed $75 million plan to settle nationwide litigation over head injuries met with skepticism from a federal judge.
The agreement announced in July would allow any athlete who ever participated in an NCAA-sanctioned event to be screened for lasting effects of playing the game. The program would run for 50 years. The settlement would preclude subsequent class-action bodily injury cases.
U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee in Chicago questioned attorneys for the NCAA, the governing body for most college sports, and athletes’ lawyers about a range of topics including whether enough money is being set aside and how all the athletes who’d be covered by the program could learn about it.
The National Football League’s settlement of head injury cases got hung up in January when a federal judge in Philadelphia said that a $675 million compensation fund included in the settlement may be insufficient to cover a class of about 20,000 retired players for a 65-year term. U.S. District Judge Anita Brody gave the accord preliminary approval in July after concluding the NFL’s willingness to create an uncapped settlement fund to cover retired players’ medical costs from dementia and other neurological disorders tied to repeated concussions deserved initial approval.
A report issued last month said the NFL’s liability could balloon to $950 million. Similar complaints have been lodged against the National Hockey League and against U.S. soccer organizations and that sport’s international governing body, FIFA.
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.
Lee heard almost 2 1/2 hours of argument today and gave no indication when he will rule.
The NCAA is asking its member schools to provide it with addresses for would-be class members, which would then need to be verified, organization attorney Mark Mester told the judge today at Chicago federal court.
Steve Berman, a lawyer for the players, said word would also be disseminated through the Internet.
“We’re going to be able to get them notice,” the attorney said.
The bulk of the settlement money is earmarked for the 50- year screening and monitoring program and $5 million will be dedicated to head injury research and still more to cover class notification and administrative costs.
While Berman told the judge the medical monitoring money could run out, Mester countered that the accord probably allots too much for that process. When asked by Lee, Mester defended a provision in the agreement allowing the NCAA to recapture any funds remaining at its end.
Objecting lawyers Jay Edelson of Chicago and Dwight Jefferson of Houston, who said he was a former collegiate football player and once a judge, complained that a class agreement covering only medical monitoring and not injury claims would leave hurt athletes without recourse.
Berman told the judge that athletes who sustained head traumas significant enough to warrant legal action would probably have claims worth more than $100,000.
Jefferson told Lee that older athletes, including a client of his, would have greater difficulty establishing that any cognitive difficulties they had now were the result of sports- related head injuries sustained decades ago and that their low- payout cases would be unattractive to attorneys.
“There’s no compensation for people that were actually hurt,” Jefferson said after court.
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 Sophia Pearson in federal court in Philadelphia and Jef Feeley in Wilmington, Delaware.)
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