SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A San Francisco federal judge will decide whether the NFL contributed to the drug-overdose death of former lineman Curtis Whitley by improperly diagnosing and failing to prevent repeated concussions.
Whitley died in 2008 after suffering permanent brain damage that caused severe migraine headaches, memory loss, extreme sensitivity to light and suicidal thoughts, among other serious maladies, according to the complaint. Media reports indicate Whitley died from a drug overdose.
Facing a wrongful death lawsuit from the guardian of Whitley’s two minor children in Alameda County Superior Court, the NFL removed the case this month to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
The league says the Labor Management Relations Act provides federal courts with original jurisdiction over contract cases between employers and labor organizations.
In the original March complaint, Alfred Camarena claims the “NFL was aware of the risks of repeated head trauma and multiple concussive events, but nevertheless chose to deliberately ignore and conceal from the players and their families the risks of serious long-term health effects. The NFL chose to actively deceive the players and encourage return-to-play prematurely after a concussive event, thereby creating further risk for them.”
Whitley allegedly relied on the league’s statements, leading him to believe that “concussive events did not present serious life-altering risks” and therefore he returned to play prematurely.
The suit claims the NFL “concealed important medical information from players” about the effects of concussions. The NFL allegedly ignored evidence that it needed to improve the safety of helmets.
Though safer helmets had been developed, the NFL decided not to implement standards requiring the use of the helmets, according to the complaint. Even when high school and college football organizations changed rules to minimize the risk of head injury, the NFL allegedly did nothing.
It “continued to deny any connection to or correlation between players suffering concussions and long-term chronic brain injury or illness” until at least 2010, even as the evidence mounted, according to the suit. This evidence allegedly includes the high rate of concussions among NFL players and studies that show players suffering repeated concussions are more likely to suffer post-traumatic brain injury symptoms like headaches, dizziness and memory loss.
The NFL first acknowledged the truth to its active players about concussions in 2010 when it issued a warning poster and related pamphlets to players regarding identifying concussions. The NFL had set up relatively ineffective concussions guidelines before, including in 2007, according to the suit.
The 2010 poster and pamphlet allegedly “warned active players of the long-term risks associated with multiple concussions, including dementia, memory loss, CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and its related symptoms. Unlike its previous messages to players, including the 2007 pamphlet, the NFL instructed players regarding reporting possible concussions, treating concussions, and the long-term risk of concussions. The NFL quoted the Center for Disease Control’s conclusions that ‘traumatic brain injury can cause a wide range of short – or long term changes affecting thinking, sensation, language or emotions.'”
But the NFL still has not warned retired players of the long-term effects of concussions, however, according to the suit.
The guardian of Whitley’s children accuses the NFL seeks damages for negligence, fraud and wrongful death. He is represented by Stuart Fraenkel of Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in Los Angeles.
The NFL is represented by Ronald Olson of Munger, Tolles & Olson, also in Los Angeles.