For a half-dozen years, courts across the country have handled a series of concussion-related lawsuits filed by former players and their family members, who felt football caused irreparable damage, sometimes even leading to death. The cases have been either settled, dismissed or are still locked in some stage of legal dispute.
But Ploetz v. NCAA kept winding its way through the system and actually had a trial date. Finally, a judge and jury would hear arguments, and there might even be a decision that assigned liability for the trauma suffered on football fields. Since it was the first of its kind to go before a jury, the case grabbed the attention of players, families, leagues and helmet manufacturers that have been embroiled in concussion litigation.
But Friday afternoon, on just the third day of the trial, the sides reached a settlement. Terms were not disclosed.
“The settlement gives all parties the opportunity to resolve the case outside of a lengthy trial,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, said in a statement. “The NCAA does not admit liability as part of the settlement. We will continue to defend the Association vigorously in all jurisdictions where similar unwarranted individual cases are pursued. It is our hope that other plaintiffs’ lawyers recognize that this is one settlement in one case.”
Lawyers representing Debra Hardin-Ploetz, who sued the NCAA on behalf of her deceased husband, Greg Ploetz, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The case was heard by Texas District Judge Ken Molberg, who told jurors that the two parties reached an agreement during Friday’s lunch break. According to Law360, the judge said the early stages of the trial helped encourage the sides to settle. “I want to say that I couldn’t make them do it before they got here; I was incapable of that, [and] they were incapable of doing it themselves,” he reportedly said. “So what did it take? It took the 13 of you, essentially, to do that.”
The agreement came after the jury had heard from some key witnesses, such as Boston University neurologist Robert Cantu, and also considered a deposition from the NCAA’s chief medical officer, neurologist Brian Hainline, in which he acknowledged a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Ploetz was a linebacker and defensive tackle for the University of Texas from 1968-71, and he played for the Longhorns’ national title team in 1969. He never played professionally and, according to the lawsuit, suffered from a variety of later-life maladies, including depression and memory loss.
After Ploetz died in 2015, his brain was studied by researchers at Boston University, who said it exhibited signs of Stage 4 CTE, the most severe form.
The lawsuit filed by Ploetz’s widow sought more than $1 million in damages. She charged the NCAA with negligence and wrongful death, essentially arguing the NCAA should have known about the dangers associated with head injuries in football and that it failed to inform players about those risks. In opening statements, Ploetz’s attorneys told the jury that the NCAA has known since the 1930s that football could lead to brain damage, according to Law360.
The NCAA countered in court filings, saying Ploetz “voluntarily participated in the activity of playing football and accordingly assumed the risk of injury.”
The NCAA was represented by attorney Chris Watt, who told the jury in his opening statement Wednesday that the plaintiffs were engaging in “Monday morning quarterbacking,” according to Law360. He also cast doubt on CTE, saying the condition is still not accepted in medical literature.
Legal observers and advocates for former players had been watching Ploetz v. NCAA closely, certain it had the potential to set precedent and possibly lead to significant changes to football at the college level. The agreement certainly could be a positive one for Hardin-Ploetz. But Friday’s settlement means the case probably will not bring about the broader-reaching judgment and public airing of evidence that many advocates had hoped for.
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