Have Football Concussion Lawsuits Become “Bandwagon”? A Helmet Maker Says So.

Two days after one of the best national championships in college football history unfolded between the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide, five former college football players from Texas and Oklahoma sued the NCAA and the Big 12 over head trauma suffered during their playing careers.

And just days prior to Super Bowl LI in Houston, helmet maker Riddell was slapped with a class-action from 34 plaintiffs, all of whom allege they suffered ill effects from the company's so-called careless safety precautions.

Fort Worth-based law firm Circelli, Walter & Young, which is also representing former football players from Alabama, Arizona, Kansas and Iowa, is seeking damages for health care costs, lost wages and miscellaneous personal injury damages. The class action against the NCAA was filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Indiana (the NCAA is headquartered in Indianapolis) on January 9, while the class action against Riddell was filed on January 31 in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California - San Francisco Division.

“While there was a separate $75 million medical monitoring settlement reached last year with the NCAA, it does not cover medical expenses for former players,” says Hayley Girard, a spokeswomen for the Fort Worth firm.

According to court documents, the plaintiffs in the Riddell suit include former University of Houston first-team all-conference offensive lineman Chris Thompson and ex-Texas Southern University defensive back Stacey Thomas, the 2006 Southwestern Athletic Conference defensive player of the year.

They allege, in part:

Riddell… knowingly and negligently developed, designed, tested, marketed, promoted, advertised, distributed and sold dangerous and defective football helmets that lacked critical and accurate safety information relating to the products. As a direct result of Riddell’s wrongful misconduct and omissions, Plaintiffs have suffered permanent injuries and/or were left at an elevated risk for grievous injuries and latent damages to brain.

As a result of Riddell’s bad acts… this lawsuit seeks to recover damages for injuries sustained by the Plaintiffs as the direct and proximate result of the negligent and wrongful misconduct of Riddell in connection with the development, design, promotion, marketing, and sale of Riddell football helmets to Plaintiffs. 
“The players in the lawsuits all suffer from some degree of traumatic brain injuries from multiple concussions or sub-concussive hits; these injuries can include symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma,” adds Girard. “CTE symptoms range from memory loss, anger control problems and depression to Parkinsonism, Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

There have been several waves of concussion lawsuits ever since the NCAA passed regulations in 2010 that forced schools to craft concussion-related guidelines. According to ABC News, Chicago law firm Edelson PC filed more than 40 concussion-related class actions against the NCAA in 2016; a Cook County Record report shows that Edelson is seeking a court order for $6 million in fees related to its work in the $75 million NCAA medical monitoring settlement in January 2016. Meanwhile, Circelli, Walter & Young plans to file additional suits against more college football conferences.

In a prepared statement, Riddell appears to be just a little fed up with playing the defendant role.

Late to jump on the bandwagon, this latest lawyer-driven concussion lawsuit comes more than five years after the first of these cases was filed in July, 2011. Nowhere in their rambling 43-page complaint and accompanying press release do plaintiffs acknowledge that a previous NCAA player lawsuit containing similar allegations was voluntarily dismissed last year after multiple failed attempts by the lawyers behind that case to plead successful class claims against Riddell.

Riddell has been working with the football community for over a decade and a half to understand the on-field circumstances contributing to concussions and to develop state-of-the-art helmets that reduce concussion risk. Plaintiffs’ recycled allegations ignore the more than 15 years of work by Riddell, government agencies, football organizations, sports leagues, schools, industry groups and others to advance concussion awareness. They also ignore that Riddell’s helmets have long been recognized as the top football head protection available at all levels of football and that Riddell led the industry many years ago in providing concussion-specific warnings.

Overt lawyer self-promotion and meritless litigation like this harms not only good organizations like Riddell, it harms the game of football and the many millions of participants whose lives have been enriched by the benefits of sports participation. This latest copycat complaint, likes the ones preceding it, demonstrates little regard for the implications that sensationalized allegations have on the sport and the millions of people who benefit from it.

Riddell has a decades-long history of designing, manufacturing and selling industry-leading, state-of-the-art football helmets. As the leader in the football helmet industry for over 85 years, Riddell is well prepared to defend these claims to the full vindication of its products and reputation. Riddell will aggressively defend this latest action as it does all frivolous litigation and pursue all the relief to which it is legally entitled for having to respond to these meritless claims.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen