The family of former National Football League player Paul Oliver, who committed suicide in front of his wife and two young sons, has sued the company that made the helmets used by NFL players and other football players at many levels of the game, blaming the manufacturer for conspiring with the NFL and others to cover up its knowledge of the ineffectiveness of its helmets at preventing the kind of brain injuries the family said ultimately led to the mental illness that cause Oliver to take his own life.
On March 11, Paul Oliver’s widow, Chelsea Oliver, and her two sons filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Des Plaines-based football equipment maker Riddell Inc., Riddell’s corporate parent BRG Sports Inc., and several other corporate entities affiliated with Riddell and its products, claiming Riddell and the associated companies should be held liable for her late husband’s brain damage and resulting death, as she alleged the companies were part of a conspiracy to conceal from players the problem of concussions in football and the resulting brain damage that led to degenerative brain conditions and mental illness in players.
The wrongful death lawsuit, filed as a product liability complaint containing 10 counts, including conspiracy, fraudulent omission and concealment, and negligence in failing to warn players of the risk posed by wearing Riddell helmets while playing football, among other allegations, asked the court to award the Oliver family unspecified damages from Riddell and the affiliated defendants.
Oliver played NFL football from 2007-2012, spending the vast bulk of his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers as a defensive back and special teams player. His professional seasons capped off nearly two decades of playing organized football, dating back to the age of 10 in 1994 and including his time playing safety for the University of Georgia.
About a year after his playing career ended, the lawsuit said Oliver committed suicide at the age of 29 by shooting himself in front of his family at his home in Orange County, Calif., in September 2013.
In April 2014, neuropathologists at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy reported an examination of Oliver’s brain revealed he had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition caused by repeated blows to the head and brain injuries suffered playing football, and which “was substantially responsible for his horrific demise,” the complaint said.
According to the complaint, research dating back to the 1920s indicated professional football leagues, teams and equipment makers have known for decades of the connection between CTE and playing football. The complaint further alleged Riddell, as the leading supplier of football helmets, has known for decades that its helmets were ineffective at preventing the kinds of so-called “rotational” brain injuries believed to cause CTE.
However, rather than taking steps to remedy the problem, the Oliver family’s complaint said Riddell and the NFL worked together to instead limit their liability and conceal the truth from the public, players and others involved in the game. For instance, the complaint said Riddell and other equipment makers established the National Operating Committee on Standards for Equipment Safety, which while purporting to create standards to improve player safety, instead “advanced a constituency-serving agenda” to create “a built-in defense to liability” for the equipment manufacturers and the league.
Further, the complaint said Riddell and the NFL partnered to create other corporate entities to provide further protection for Riddell against potential litigation over football players’ brain injuries, while allegedly funding “junk science” into the success of certain helmets at preventing concussions and creating propaganda to mislead players as to the risks and tamp down the chances for both private and organized public action against the NFL and the game of football.
The complaint particularly faulted Riddell for allegedly promoting a product in the early 2000s it claimed would reduce concussions by almost one-third, while knowing its reliance on a certain kind of foam made it little more effective than earlier helmet designs.
And the alleged fraud was only furthered in 2013, the complaint said, when the NFL and Riddell purportedly parted ways, only to have Riddell instead partner with the USA Football organization, which is directed by many officials associated with the NFL.
The complaint said the efforts of the NFL and Riddell, among others, have left players in the dark as to the true risks associated with playing football, no matter the helmet they wear. The complaint specifically alleged Oliver “was not aware of the long-term consequences of the head trauma he would experience on each play; nor was he aware that speed players were at the highest risk for the latent disease that would ultimately cause his demise; nor was he aware that football helmets could never properly protect him against these injuries; nor was he aware that his Riddell football helmet was not actually any safer than any other of the helmets that he wore.”
“Oliver played his football career and entered pro football unaware of the material information alleged in this complaint that had been concealed from him,” the complaint said. “He played his career … in reliance upon the material misrepresentations, concealments and omissions that Riddell and its co-conspirators had a duty to disclose to him.”
The Oliver family is represented in the action by attorneys with the firms of Corboy & Demetrio, of Chicago; The Brad Sohn Law Firm, of Coral Gables, Fla.; and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, of New York.
The lawsuit is substantially similar to one Oliver brought against Riddell, the San Diego Chargers, the NFL and others in California in 2014. That case was voluntarily dismissed.
The NFL has secured a court order barring any further claims against it as a settlement between it and many former players is finalized. Oliver’s new lawsuit, however, does not name the NFL as a defendant, but only Riddell and associated companies.