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Examining the Long-Term Mental Effects of Concussions

March 20th, 2012 at 7:17 AM
By Lee Oliff

Former Chicago Bear, Dave Duerson, committed suicide last February with a single gunshot to the chest. Duerson publicly requested that his brain be donated to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s School of Medicine to be properly examined. About a year later, Duerson’s family is suing the NFL for wrongful death.  

Duerson’s family attorney, Thomas Demetrio, claims that the NFL did not do enough to prevent or treat concussions, which ultimately caused Duerson’s severe brain damage. Demetrio claims the NFL deliberately concealed the effects of concussions and failed to inform and implement proper safety procedures. Duerson’s suit came shortly after eleven former New Orleans Saints players and 140 other former players brought suit against the NFL for concussion related injuries (NFL is on the Defense). As recently as last week, former teammate, Jim McMahon, publicly berated the NFL’s lack of disclosure during a segment on ESPN’s Outside the Lines (video). McMahon claims he suffers from severe short term memory loss from concussions sustained during his NFL career. Similar to Duerson, McMahon requested that his brain be donated for further research upon his death. Demetrio also joined Riddell Inc. in the suit claiming that the helmets did not adequately protect the players.  

Wrongful death claims require that the victim died as a result of (1) actions caused, in part or whole, by the defendant; (2) through the defendant’s negligence; (3) brought by member(s) of the surviving family; who are seeking (4) monetary damages resulting from the victim’s death.  

In this case, Demetrio must demonstrate that Duerson’s death was caused, at least in part, by the NFL deliberate concealment of concussion effects. Demetrio will likely need to plead that the NFL had a duty to Duerson that was breached, which caused Duerson to suffer long-term effects, ultimately resulting in his death. Since Duerson’s death was a suicide, Demetrio must demonstrate that Duerson’s mental illness was caused by concussions suffered during his career.  

According to the family, Duerson sustained at least ten concussions throughout his career. Duerson alleged in his suicide note that the intensity and frequency of his concussions led him to develop a mental disorder, which ultimately resulted in his suicide.  

This is yet another lawsuit against the NFL brought by players, former players and now estates.  
Many issues are raised in the suits about the violent nature of the sport and the duty the NFL and various teams have to its employees, the players. In this case, Demetrio needs to go several steps further. Assuming he can establish a duty, he would next need to prove the NFL intentionally concealed information about the effects of concussions. Such proof would be necessary to establish the duty was breached. Even so, the negligent actions of the NFL will be difficult to link to Duerson’s ultimate death. Additionally, the NFL is likely to argue that injuries sustained during players’ NFL careers and injuries sustained beforehand are indistinguishable and therefore the NFL should not be solely responsible.  

Duerson’s high profile and suicide note specifically linking his head injuries from football to his mental illness ultimately ending in his death is an issue the NFL may consider in settlement. In light of the outstanding lawsuits against the NFL and the “New Orleans Bounty-Gate” scandal, the NFL is more likely to settle rather than face another public relations nightmare. Denying any additional responsibility to its players would make matters worse for the NFL. Additionally, the NFL risks that discovery might demonstrate documents that would show knowledge of the condition or failure to implement equipment changes that could have helped limit the known physical risks.   

Lawsuit aside, the NFL should not allow Duerson death to be in vain and become another forgotten story. Hopefully the NFL and Center for the Study of Encephalopathy can work together to determine the long-term effects of concussions and how to properly protect its players. If Duerson’s suicide leads to correctional measures regarding head injuries, at least some justice would be served.    

Tags: Dave Duerson, Jim McMahon, Law, Sports, Sports Law

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