Blog: Football Concussion Suits: Reasonable or Hard Headed?

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By: Bradford Schulz, Associate Staff

Juries across the nation recently are being asked to determine reasonable standards for football concussion helmet suits.[1] In a trademark case this past summer, the NFL settled with thousands of former professional league football players in a concussion related claim class action suit.[2]  The total NFL payout is $870 million with $675 million awarded for compensatory claims, $75 million for testing, $10 million for medical research, and $112 million for lawyers’ fees.[3]  The final settlement has approximately three payout formula categories; (1) a young retiree with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease will be awarded $5 million, (2) 50-year-old retires with Alzheimer’s disease could receive $1.6 million, and (3) 80-year-old retires with early dementia will be awarded $25,000.[4]  Just this month, a splinter group from the settlement launched and lost their bid for appellate intervention on the merits of the settlement.[5]  The goal for the Sean Morey Objectors was to establish a legal custom in defining what football organizations know or should know about concussion safety.[6]  Juries in football concussion suits are quickly recognizing that the absence of a reasonable custom is not the only issue that needs addressing.

Before juries can tackle the appropriate legal custom in concussion related tort actions, scientists need to first figure out what a concussion is. Doctors struggle with establishing parameters for diagnosing concussions because they are unsure what specifically causes concussions. “If you talk to any doctor out there, you’re going to get 14 different opinions on what causes a concussion . . . [w]e don’t know if it’s a big hit or if it’s a whole bunch of little hits.”[7]  It is known that helmets protect the player’s head and are able to absorb a hit’s energy; however, helmets do not protect the brain from the hit’s acceleration.[8]

Any hit will likely have a perpendicular component and an angular component. A perpendicular hit is aligned straight at the head, directed exactly at the brain’s center of gravity. Football helmets do a satisfactory job absorbing the energy from a perpendicular hit because the structure of the shell transfers the energy away from the impact. The helmet significantly reduces the force, i.e. acceleration, of the perpendicular hit felt by the brain. Whereas an angular hit is any hit not straight at the brain’s center of gravity. This angled hit creates a rotational force around the brain’s center of gravity causing the head to spin, twist, or rotate. The helmet provides little protection to stop this additional rotation, because after all, the player needs to turn his head to look around. Imagine wearing a helmet and having someone hit the crown with a hammer; the helmet may not break, but you will likely undergo whiplash. It is believed that this rotational acceleration is a major component in football concussions.[9]

There are efforts in the scientific community to analyze the forces felt from a football hit. Researchers at several universities have installed sensors within their school’s helmets to measure the forces felt during hits. For instance, the InSite software measures violent movement and impact duration, and then it transmits this data to training staff on the sideline.[10]  Another program monitors player’s change in molecular information throughout a season in order to identify possible blood-based molecular correlations with concussions.[11] Dr. Duma, a university researcher, has found that “routine” hits equate to 20-40 times the force of gravity and “violent collisions” equate to 120 times the force of gravity.[12] An imperfect comparison is to acknowledge that astronauts train at 9 times the force of gravity; however, the durations are significantly different.

Several manufactures, some of which were involved in the NFL settlement, are beginning to offer new helmet designs. One manufacture is adding bullet stopping Kevlar inside their helmets; another is changing its external design to incorporate rubber padded foam, while others have sensors that update training staff on possible concussion-causing hits.[13]

So how is this affecting tort law? Other than the typical safety advertising suit, the lack of information on football hit concussions is affecting the custom standards juries use in determining reasonable safety precautions and designs. The first affect is that players, especially high school youth, believe that helmets protect them from concussions. As such, juries are willing to protect these youth by awarding plaintiffs for inadequate helmet safety warnings.[14] The second affect is that juries are struggling in establishing a test for negligent design. It is clear that juries are unsatisfied by the common practice in helmet manufacturing[15], but until the scientific research catches up juries are unable to hold the football helmet design to a satisfactory reasonable standard. And after all, unpredictable juries make for nervous litigators. Until science catches up and litigators have a clear custom for helmet safety negligence, we may see more settlements like the NFL case this past summer.

[1] FORBES, Hard Knocks: Xenith’s Helmet Technology Stands Tall Amidst Football’s Concussion Crisis, Sept. 2014 (available http://www.forbes.com/sites/chrissmith/2014/08/20/hard-knocks-xeniths-helmet-technology-stands-tall-amidst-footballs-concussions-crisis/).

[2] Associated Press. Federal Judge Approves NFL Concussion Settlement, July 7, 2014 (last updated July 9, 2014) (available at http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000363672/article/federal-judge-approves-nfl-concussion-settlement).

[3] Id.

[4] In re Nat’l Football League Players’ Concussion Injury Litig., 2:12-MD-02323-AB, 2014 WL 3054250 (E.D. Pa. July 7, 2014).

[5] Paul D. Anderson, Objectors Seek Potentially Damning Discovery, NFL CONCUSION LITIGATION, Sept. 2014 (available at http://nflconcussionlitigation.com/).

[6] Id.

[7] Gary Mihoces, More Padding the Issue of Concussions and Better Helmets; USA TODAY SPORTS, Aug. 2013.

[8] Jim Avila and Serena Marshall, Riddell Unveils Overhauled New Football Helmet SpeedFlex, GOOD MORNING AMERICA, Aug 2014 (available at http://abcnews.go.com/US/riddell-unveils-football-helmet-speedflex/story?id=25141779).
 
[9] Id.

[10] Chris Fuhrmeister, New Riddell SpeedFlex Football Helmet Pits Technology vs. Concussions, SB NATION, Mar. 2014 (available at http://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2014/3/28/5547618/riddell-speedflex-helmets-insite-technology).

[11] Hackney Publications, Riddell and TGen Team up with Arizona State University’s Football Program to Further Genetic Research into Athlete Concussion Detection and Treatment, Concussion Policy & the Law, August 2014 (available at http://concussionpolicyandthelaw.com/tag/helmet/).

[12] Gregg Easterbrook, Virginia Tech Helmet Research Crucial, July 2011 (available at http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=easterbrook-110719_virginia_tech_helmet_study).

[13] Jim Avila and Serena Marshall, Riddell Unveils Overhauled New Football Helmet SpeedFlex, GOOD MORNING AMERICA, Aug 2014 (available at http://abcnews.go.com/US/riddell-unveils-football-helmet-speedflex/story?id=25141779); Gary Mihoces, More Padding the Issue of Concussions and Better Helmets; USA TODAY SPORTS, Aug. 2013.

[14] FORBES, Hard Knocks: Xenith’s Helmet Technology Stands Tall Amidst Football’s Concussion Crisis, Sept. 2014 (available http://www.forbes.com/sites/chrissmith/2014/08/20/hard-knocks-xeniths-helmet-technology-stands-tall-amidst-footballs-concussions-crisis/).

[15] Id.