A federal appeals court Monday upheld a settlement that calls for monetary rewards estimated to reach nearly $1 billion for many former NFL players who have suffered concussions playing professional football and enhanced medical testing for current and future ones.
“Though not perfect, it is fair,” a three-judge panel for U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said in its ruling.
Initial settlement terms were approved a year ago by District Judge Anita Brody, but a small group of objectors appealed that ruling, upset the deal didn’t offer payments specifically associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease resulting from repetitive brain trauma.
Christopher Seeger, co-lead counsel for the large group of former players, acknowledged that large settlements aren’t usually perfect.
“But it’s really good,” he said, “and it’s fair and it’s adequate.
“The whole purpose of the lawsuit was to get help to players immediately who needed it because they were suffering. . . . I just hope we’re ready to move on, that these appeals will go away.”
With the appeals court’s decision, the objectors must now decide whether to continue with the legal battle, potentially taking the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court or requesting a panel of all Third Circuit judges to reconsider Monday’s ruling.
“We are disappointed with the court’s decision,” Steven Molo, lead counsel for the objectors, said in a statement. “We are reviewing the opinion and considering our options.”
Monday’s ruling was written by Judge Thomas L. Ambro on behalf of the three-judge panel. The panel said it was hesitant to reject the deal “based on an unsupported hope that sending the parties back to the negotiating table would lead to a better deal,” but did say the objectors were “well-intentioned in making thoughtful arguments against certification of the class and approval of this settlement.”
The objectors “risk making the perfect the enemy of the good,” the ruling stated. “This settlement will provide nearly $1 billion in value to the class of retired players. It is a testament to the players, researchers, and advocates who have worked to expose the true human costs of a sport so many love.”
The current settlement calls for generous payments for former players suffering from debilitating conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS. The agreement also mandates NFL owners dedicate $75 million to baseline assessments and $10 million to educational efforts. Barring further appeals, Seeger said players in need could begin seeing money within three to four months of the case’s finality.
“Today’s decision is a significant step in implementing the clubs’ commitment to provide compensation to retired players who are experiencing cognitive or neurological issues,” Jeff Pash, the league’s general counsel, wrote in a memo Monday to the 32 NFL teams. “It reflects the decision of the clubs to set aside strong legal and factual defenses, and instead provide medical care and compensation for retirees and their families.”
The small group of objectors have argued that the settlement doesn’t adequately account for the dangers associated with CTE, a disease that can only be diagnosed only posthumously. They’d hoped their argument gained traction in recent weeks, particularly after Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, acknowledged to a Congressional committee last month that a relationship exists between football and CTE, the first public concession on the matter by a league official.
“[Even] if the NFL has finally come around to the view that there is a link between CTE and football, many more questions must be answered before we could say that the failure to compensate the diagnosis was unreasonable,” the judges said in their ruling.
More than 4,500 former players began lining up in 2011 to sue the NFL, saying the league misled them on the dangers posed by concussions. The path to a settlement has not been simple. In August 2013, former players and the NFL agreed to a settlement and have spent more than 2½ years trying to gain approval. Brody rejected an initial settlement proposal in January 2014 and sent both sides back to the negotiating table. They came up with another agreement last year, which Brody approved in April 2015.
Attorneys for the large class, which covers more than 20,000 former players, had tried to impress on judges a sense of urgency, saying players were suffering while they waited for their monetary awards to gain court approval. Earlier this month, one of the lead plaintiffs, former fullback Kevin Turner, died at the age of 46, following a six-year battle with ALS.
“I wish Kevin was here to learn the news,” Turner’s father, Raymond, said Monday a statement. “I know he would have been elated with the Third Circuit’s decision, because he fought so bravely on behalf of his fellow NFL alumni. What matters now is time, and many retired players do not have much left.”