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Vet’s Family Sues NFL for Wrongful Death

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - The family of linebacker Wally Hilgenberg claims in Federal Court that the 16-year NFL veteran died from degenerative brain injuries stemming from repeated concussions.

Eric Hilgenberg, the linebacker's son, sued the National Football League for wrongful death, on behalf of his father's estate, on his own behalf, and for his mother, Mary.

Wally Hilgenberg, who played in four Super Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings and also played for the Detroit Lions, died in 2008.

The Hilgenbergs' wrongful death complaint is the latest in a string of lawsuits that claim the NFL distorted and buried its own research and ignored repeated warnings that head injuries can lead to delayed neurological disorders and death.

More than 40 former NFL players and their wives, including current NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, filed another federal complaint against the NFL Philadelphia on the same day the Hilgenberg family filed.

Both complaints claim that the NFL was aware for decades that players who suffered repeated concussions were more likely to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic brain injury, such as dizziness, loss of memory, dementia, Alzheimer's disease and encephalopathy, but the league it failed to "act reasonably by developing appropriate means to identify at-risk players and guidelines or rules regarding return-to-play criteria."

"The defendant's breach of duty in this respect increased the risk of long-term injury and illness," according to the Hilgenbergs' complaint.

Hilgenberg, who died at 66, retired from the NFL in 1979 and went on to run a successful real estate business with former teammate Stu Voigt. In 2003 he began suffering memory loss and muscle weakness. He died in September 2008 at his home in Lakeville, Minn.

Family members and friends were told it was from complications associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. Some of Hilgenberg's organs were donated to the Boston University School of Medicine, but it wasn't until 2010 that the school's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy announced Hilgenberg's death was due to Chronic Traumatic Encephalomyopathy, according to the complaint.

The Hilgenbergs claim the NFL had been aware of the dangers of repeated concussion as early as the 1960's, though as late as 2009 it was still publicly trying to refute the findings of its own self-funded research.

"On September 30, 2009, as a part of its continuing active role in disputing and covering up the causative role of repeated concussions suffered by NFL players and long-term mental health disabilities and illnesses, the defendant disputed the results of a scientific study that it funded," the Hilgenbergs say in their complaint. "On the aforementioned date, newspaper accounts were published detailing (an unreleased) study commissioned by the NFL to assess the health and well-being of retired players, which found that the players had reported being diagnosed with dementia and other memory-related diseases at a rate significantly higher than that of the general population. Despite the findings of this study, showing that 6.1 percent of retired NFL players age 50 and above reported being diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other memory related illnesses, compared to a 1.2 percent for all comparably aged U.S. men, the defendant's agents disputed these findings and continued the mantra in the press that there is no evidence connecting concussions, concussion-like symptoms, NFL football and long-term brain illness or injury, including but not limited to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), dementia, etc." (Parentheses in complaint.)

In February 2011 longtime Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson took his own life, shooting himself in the chest, "presumably to preserve his brain," according to contemporary news reports.

Duerson had been suffering from a "moderately advanced" case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Pathologists who analyzed Duerson's brain called it a "classic" case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Doctors at Boston University told Time magazine at the time that of the 15 deceased NFL players they had studied, only one did not have CTE, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

The Hilgenbergs seek damages for claims concealment, civil conspiracy and negligence.

They are represented by Larry Coben and Sol Weiss with Anapol, Schwartz.

In the second complaint, the NFL veterans and their wives, led by Britt and Bridgette Hager, are represented by Gene Locks.

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