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Retired NFL players out of time in lawsuit over ‘painkiller culture’

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court that the former players had waited too long to sue the NFL for injuries they claim resulted from excessive use of painkillers during their playing careers.

(CN) — A group of eight retired National Football League players failed in their appeal of a judge's ruling that ended their attempt to hold the league liable for permanent injuries they claim were caused by excessive use of painkillers by their team doctors.

In an unsigned order Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the findings that absolved the NFL of liability for claims by Richard Dent, a former Chicago Bear and NFL Hall of Famer, and the other former players over the who claimed the league propelled a "painkiller culture" whereby team doctors doled out drugs without prescriptions and without warning players of harmful side effects. 

The appellate panel said Senior U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco was correct when he concluded that the former players had waited too long to sue, as long as 36 years in one case.

"The district court did not err when it granted the NFL summary judgment," the panel wrote. "The statute of limitations bars plaintiffs' claims for musculoskeletal injuries, certain latent internal organ injuries, and later addiction because plaintiffs were on notice of the NFL's conduct at the time they played football — the same conduct that now forms the basis of their negligent voluntary undertaking claims."

An attorney for the retired players didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

On appeal, the players argued they didn't know about the NFL's behind-the-scenes role in the administration of painkillers by their team doctors until 2013. And even if they might have known that the NFL acted “directly or indirectly through team doctors,” the players said, they had no reason to suspect that the NFL wrongfully caused their injuries.

"Plaintiffs of course knew of the musculoskeletal injuries and addiction at the time they occurred," the players said in their appellate brief. "And they knew they had been given drugs by team doctors and trainers at the time they received them, but plaintiffs had every right to trust that the treatment they received was proper."

The appellate panel, however, said that "diligent investigation" would have revealed the necessary facts of the NFL's conduct.

The panel also agreed that Alsup had been correct not to let the lawsuit proceed as a class action on behalf of all NFL players who were on the teams between 1973 and 2008 and who suffered severe injuries that lingered long after their careers ended. The players had claimed the NFL's business plan prioritized profits over safety by ensuring that injured players returned to play as soon as possible — and well before they were fully healed.

Alsup said in August 2021 that a trial involving the proposed nationwide class would implicate the laws of at least 23 different states and become "a sprawling train wreck."

The players first sued in 2014 and their case bounced back and forth between Alsup and the Ninth Circuit for years. The judge twice granted the NFL's motion to dismiss and both times the Ninth Circuit reversed his decision. In December 2021, the judge looked at the undisputed evidence to decide whether the case should go to trial — and he concluded it should not.

U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Tallman, a Bill Clinton appointee, Jay Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee, and Lawrence VanDyke, a Donald Trump appointee, made up the panel.

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Categories / Appeals, Health, National, Personal Injury, Sports

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