$10M Verdict Tossed for Football Practice Death

     (CN) – The family of a college football player who died during a practice can only collect $200,000 of a $10 million jury award stemming from his death, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week.
     The decision announced May 28 involves the death of Ereck Plancher, a University of Central Florida football player who collapsed and died during conditioning drills in 2008.
     Shortly after his death, Plancher’s family sued the University of Central Florida Athletics Association, a private company that runs the university’s sports programs, for negligence.
     They claimed that the association failed to do everything possible to prevent Ereck’s death due to complications from his sickle-cell trait. Other players testified at trial the workout that led to Plancher’s death was intended as a punishment for players who came back from spring break out of shape.
     A jury awarded the family $10 million at trial.
     On appeal, however, the association argued it should have been accorded the same sovereign immunity that protects the university as a state agency. That classification caps damages in a tort suit at $200,000.
     Plancher’s family responded by insisting that for the association to have the protection, the university must have day-to-day control of its activities, which it said is not the case.
     But in 6-0 vote, with one recusal, the Florida Supreme Court held that the family was wrong and that the university effectively controls the UCF Athletic Association by appointing its board members, controlling its budget, and maintaining its right to dissolve the association at any time.
     Further, the court said, the fact the university president appoints and supervises of the director of athletics is sufficient to show that UCF exercises actual control over the association’s daily operations, the judgment states.
     “UCFAA is not ‘an autonomous and self-sufficient entity,'” Justice Ricky Polston said, writing for the unanimous court. “Instead, UCFAA is subject to substantial state ‘constraints over its day-to-day operations,’ and UCF has ‘structural control’ of UCFAA. Accordingly, UCFAA is primarily acting as an instrumentality of the state and thus is entitled to limited sovereign immunity under section.”
     The court also rejected the Planchers’ contention that even if UCFAA is entitled to limited sovereign immunity, its insurance company is still responsible for the rest of the $10 million judgment.
     Rather, “the Planchers must look to the legislature to collect any amount awarded above the statutory cap,” the court concluded.
     Following the ruling the Planchers’ attorney, Steve Yerrid, released a statement expressing disappointment in the decision.
     “[W]e are evaluating our next step to seek justice in Ereck’s name,” Yerrid continued.
     The decision recognizes that a claims bill may be filed seeking to have the Legislature pay the difference between the cap and was awarded by the jury. We can only hope that, if it reaches that point, the Legislature will do the right thing and compensate Ereck’s family as the jury determined for his death.”
     In a statement of its own the university said, “We support the ruling and appreciate the careful consideration justices gave to this important statewide issue.”

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