Illinois School District, Coach Blamed for Ex-Player’s Brain Injury

BELLEVILLE, Ill. (CN) – A former player claims the head coach of Illinois’ defending Class 7A state champion football team routinely disregarded player safety in the pursuit of wins and gave him a defective helmet that caused traumatic brain injury.

Demond Hunt Jr. sued East St. Louis School District 189, football coach Darren Sunkett, Schutt Holdings Inc. and Curt Smith Sporting Goods Inc. in St. Clair County Circuit last week, alleging willful misconduct, negligence and product liability. Hunt is represented by Thomas Maag in Wood River, Ill.

The East St. Louis Flyers have won eight Class 7A state championships, including two under Sunkett, who won another at Riverview Gardens in Missouri before taking over the Illinois high school football power.

According to the Illinois High School Association, East St. Louis has a 762-192-36 record in its 92-year history and Sunkett has a 126-40 record in his 14 years as coach. The team won last season’s 7a state title.

The depressed Illinois town, located in the shadow of the Gateway Arch directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, has produced 16 NFL players, including Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow and three-time Pro Bowler Bryan Cox.

East St. Louis’ population of 26,672, which is 95.4 percent black, has a reported median income of $19,697, almost $40,000 below the state average.

According to his Oct. 10 complaint, Hunt suffered a burst blood vessel in his brain during a game on Oct. 3, 2008. He had several seizures and was in a coma for two weeks.

Hunt claims he was given a defective helmet, “in that it was designed to have [air] bellows provide protective cushion to the head and braid from injury, but that the defendants, 189 and Sunkett, failed to assure the air bellows were properly inflated.”

“The damage is permanent,” his attorney, Maag, told Courthouse News. “He is significantly diminished.”

Hunt claims in the lawsuit that Sunkett ordered him to play “in spite of complaints by plaintiff that he had a headache and demonstrated evidence of a concussion,” and that Sunkett ordered his players to engage in contact sports while not wearing protective equipment.

He says the East St. Louis School District “tolerated the coach’s policy of instructing student-athletes to engage in dangerous and high risk behavior;” and that the district and Sunkett placed winning over student-athletes’ safety.

School district spokeswoman Sydney Stigge-Kaufman said in a statement that Hunt’s complaint was refiled by another attorney after having been dismissed last year.

“District 189 has already investigated and denied the claim, and we will continue to vigorously defend against it,” Stigge-Kaufman said. “Beyond that, the District does not comment on pending litigation.”

Sunkett did not return a call requesting comment Monday afternoon.

Three months before his catastrophic brain injury, Hunt claims that Sunkett ordered him to tackle another teammate without pads on in July 2008. He says he suffered a broken collar bone, and orthopedic, nerve, vascular, brain and other serious trauma in the incident.

[District] 189 and Sunkett provided no treatment, instead placed him on a flight to a tournament,” the complaint states. “The other student-athlete participating in the drill suffered a broken neck.”

Schutt Holdings and Curt Smith Sporting Goods were each named in a negligence and product liability claim for manufacturing and marketing the allegedly defective helmet.

A Schutt spokesman told Courthouse News in an email that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Curt Smith Sporting Goods’ president referred reporters to its insurance company.

The lawsuit was previously filed in 2009 and was voluntarily dismissed with prejudice. The latest filing falls within the statute of limitations because it was filed within a year of that dismissal.

Hunt seeks more than $250,000 in damages.

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