Even as lawsuits continue to pile on in Chicago federal courtrooms against colleges and universities over football-induced concussions, a new front in the legal scrimmage has opened, as plaintiffs have lined up to tackle youth football powerhouse Pop Warner over brain injuries allegedly suffered by young teen athletes.
On Sept. 1, two women who alleged their sons suffered CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, from playing youth football, filed a potential class action lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court against Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., the entity that oversees youth tackle football programs in 42 states and internationally.
In Illinois, Pop Warner administers its Chicagoland conference, which includes more than two dozen teams from throughout Chicago, the suburbs and communities just outside of the metropolitan area. The league offers divisions, based on age and weight, for children ages 5-14, according to its website.
Like other concussion trauma related lawsuits, the California lawsuit alleged Pop Warner misled parents and the public about the potential risk of brain injuries which could be suffered by those playing football. While Pop Warner boasted of its ability to reduce the risk of concussions and brain injury through its improved equipment and better playing techniques, the lawsuit said those statements were “false and misleading advertising” masking the real risks to young athletes.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs have requested the creation of a class of additional plaintiffs, including anyone who played Pop Warner youth football anywhere in the U.S. since 1997, and now suffer from brain injuries, and another class including the parents of those former youth football players.
The lawsuit also includes as defendants the National Operating Committee on Standards Athletic Equipment (NOCSEA), which governs the safety of youth football playing equipment, and USA Football, the official youth football development partner of the National Football League.
The lawsuit has asked the court to order NOCSEA to slap warning labels concerning the risk of brain injury on youth football equipment, to release youth football helmet safety standards and pay out unspecified damage awards, including punitive damages and attorney fees.
The plaintiffs in the California action are represented by attorneys Thomas Girardi and Robert Finnerty, of the firm of Girardi & Keese, of Los Angeles.
The action comes as professional and amateur football organizations of all kinds find themselves under a blitz of concussion-related legal actions.
In Cook County, a judge in October 2015 tossed a potential class action brought against the Illinois High School Association, which oversees high school football and other athletics throughout Illinois. The judge in that case dismissed with prejudice the action brought against the IHSA in 2014, saying he supported the IHSA’s safety record, and that he believed the best way to protect high school athletes was through the enactment of new laws, and not huge lawsuits.
Some legal observers at the time said they believed the ruling would create a high bar for other similar legal actions against the IHSA, but could still leave the door open for other lawsuits against individual high schools.
At the college level, Chicago federal court was chosen by a panel of federal judges as the jurisdiction in which the mounting number of cases concerning brain injuries suffered by college athletes would be heard.
Early this year, a federal judge signed off on a $75 million settlement between a group of former college players, who alleged they had suffered brain injuries playing college football and other sports, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Under that settlement, the NCAA agreed to invest in a brain injury screening and evaluation program and to institute a range of other “corrective measures.” The NCAA also pledged not to oppose $15 million in attorney fees and payments of $2,500-$5,000 to the former athletes who brought the lawsuit as named defendants.
However, the settlement also did not foreclose on the possibility of future class action lawsuits against individual colleges and universities, or the athletic conferences in which their programs participate.
And in the months since the settlement, about 15 such lawsuits have been filed in federal courts across the country, and transferred into Chicago.
Cases now pending in the Northern District of Illinois include lawsuits against the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 10 Conference, the PAC-12 Conference, the Western Athletic Conference and member schools including Duke University, Wake Forest University, Penn State University, Stanford University, Boston College and Brigham Young University, among others.
Attorneys who have brought those actions include those from the firms of Edelson P.C., of Chicago, and Wilson Kehoe Winingham, of Indianapolis.
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation selected U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee to handle the federal college concussion litigation cases.