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Sixth Circuit rejects claims of conspiracy in football helmet market

A company claims that a non-profit and football helmet makers worked together to make it almost impossible for them to sell their clip-on safety device.

CINCINNATI (CN) — The Sixth Circuit ruled against the maker of a football helmet safety attachment who claimed that there was collusion between helmet manufacturers to keep them out of the market.

Hobart-Mayfield Inc. manufactures a helmet attachment device and sued because they claim they were blocked from the market by a group of helmet manufacturers and a non-profit known as the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment or NOCSAE.

NOCSAE is an organization that creates voluntary performance and safety standards for athletic equipment and these standards have been adopted by almost all football leagues including the NFL.

These standards carry a heavy weight in the helmet market, and NOCSAE’s safety licensing agreements with helmet manufacturers creates an anti-competitive market, according to Mayfield.

 The device in question is called the S.A.F.E. Clip, which according to Mayfield causes a 35% reduction in impact per hit for football players using the helmet attachment.

Mayfield sued in 2019 but their case was dismissed in April of 2021 by U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain, who was appointed to the court by Barack Obama.

Drain found that the newest version of the S.A.F.E. Clip was never submitted for safety certification or given to manufacturers for approval and that claims had to be dismissed.

“Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint contains no allegations that the newest generation of the S.A.F.E. Clip met NOCSAE certification standards, was provided to Defendants, and was nevertheless rejected by the Manufacturer Defendants,” Drain wrote. “Without this critical claim, Plaintiff cannot sufficiently allege that Defendants acted either maliciously or improperly in this case.”

The case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit who heard oral arguments in January, but the Cincinnati based appeals court issued its ruling on Friday and affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the claims should be dismissed.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Eugene Siler Jr. authored the unanimous opinion which found that none of the actions or agreement between NOCSAE and the helmet manufacturers could be found to be conspiratorial or illegally non-competitive.

“In each circumstance Mayfield draws the court’s attention to a scenario, theory, or occurrence and asks the court to make sweeping conclusions about the motives and actions of Defendants. We are not persuaded to follow Mayfield’s argument,” wrote Siler, a George H.W. Bush appointee.

Among the major findings of the court, was that a 2018 press release from NOCSAE regarding changes to its policy was not evidence of a larger scheme to restrain trade in the football helmet market.

The 2018 policy update specifically stated an addition to an already tested helmet results in an untested model, and that the manufacturer has the right to declare the NOCSAE safety certification void.

Mayfield argued that this policy update gives the helmet makers too much power because the ability to void a safety standard certification from NOCSAE after an add-on product is attached to a helmet is an illegal interference of business relations.

However, the appeals court was not persuaded by this argument, citing that the defendants had shown that their actions were made with legitimate business purposes in mind.

“Defendants have shown that their desire to protect their reputations and sell safe products is a legitimate business interest,” Siler wrote. “That this high standard creates barriers to entry for Mayfield illustrates only that Mayfield has elected to sell products in a market that places high regard on the safety and warranty of its products, not that the market is rife with tortious interference.”

Siler was joined on the ruling by U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., a Bill Clinton appointee, and by U.S. Circuit Judge John Nalbandian, an appointee of Donald Trump.

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