Jamie Kelly Jul. 11, 2016, 9:54am

CHICAGO - For Thomas A. Demetrio, who recently received the Illinois Trial Lawyers' Association's lifetime achievement award, the name of the award honoring legendary attorney Leonard M. Ring is among the most gratifying aspects of the recognition.

Thomas A. Demetrio
Thomas A. Demetrio

Ring, who died in 1994 at the age of 70, was a longtime plaintiffs’ attorney who worked on innumerable high-

profile cases and also served the legal community in a variety of roles. Demetrio worked with Ring as part of the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Jury Instructions.

“I got to see his legal genius and his fairness,” Demetrio told the Cook County Record.

Demetrio said he was honored to receive the award, but the more important part of the annual ceremony, now in its 22nd year, is that it’s a chance to remember Ring and for those who might never have met Ring to learn about his legacy.

“He was all the things a lawyer is supposed to be,” Demetrio said. “This was the way to practice law.”

His service with Ring also led to some of the work of which he is most proud - his service on the jury instruction committee. That committee helped to draft understandable explanations of topics in civil law, which is important to ensure juries come to well-reasoned decisions. Before the instructions, he said, you could have two judges in adjacent courtrooms who might be explaining the law to juries in a different way; the instructions offered uniformity.

“For the Seventh Amendment to function, it’s key that at the end of a trial, the judge supplies the law to the jurors for their consideration,” he said.

Of his work in the courtroom, however, Demetrio said he remains focused on one of his most challenging cases to date - litigation brought by retired professional football players against the National Football League over head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE). To begin with, it’s a class action suit, which is different from his usual practice of representing one plaintiff. And it has been massively complicated, not to mention slow in reaching a conclusion.

U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody originally approved the settlement between retired players and the league in 2013, but some players appealed. Earlier this year the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the settlement, and Demetrio and the other lawyers are waiting to see if the group that has appealed twice already will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

“The settlement affects not just the 5,000 players involved in the suit, but because it received class action status, all 20,000 former NFL players," Demetrio said. "Each has 180 days from the final approval of the settlement to register for participation.”

The settlement is imperfect, he said, because, as of now, the NFL is only compensating players and heirs who had a CTE diagnosis before 2015. Going forward, CTE won’t be covered. But, he said, he has hope that will expand, as there is a clause in the settlement that requires review every 10 years. The problem, he said, is that no definitive study has linked head injuries from football to CTE.

“I’m hopeful that such a study comes out, and that, as a result, CTE can be put back on the table," he said.

The entire conversation about CTE, head injuries and sports has had some positive effects, especially about ways CTE can be avoided, he said.

“This whole discussion has gotten people talking about the importance of following protocols,” he said.

Now Demetrio has become involved in other suits involving athletes and injury, including against former NFL helmet maker Riddell, which marketed its helmets as helping to reduce concussions. He’s been a partner at Corboy and Demetrio since 1982, and said he has no plans for that to change any time soon.

“It’s a great profession,” he said. “It’s not like being a surgeon where you lose your dexterity. I still have my dexterity. A lifetime achievement award doesn’t mean ‘See you later.’”

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