Cook County Record

Monday, December 9, 2019

Panel: Parents suing athletic trainers for son's football brain trauma must present medical testimony

By Scott Holland | Mar 23, 2017

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 A state appeals panel has said parents suing athletic trainers for allegedly failing to properly treat their son for concussion and other brain injuries during a high school football game must present medical expert testimony to demonstrate the trainers essentially committed malpractice, and not just negligence, to continue to press their case. 

The March 21 opinion from the three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court addressed legal questions that surfaced in the lawsuit brought by plaintiffs Jodine and Christopher Williams, the parents of Drew Williams, a child who suffered a head trauma during a 2013 Chicago Public Schools high school football game. Defendants named in the Cook County Circuit Court action included Athletico, Ltd., Accelerated Rehab Centers, Ltd., and athletic trainer Albert Buzon. 

Justice Daniel J. Pierce wrote the opinion, with justices Michael B. Hyman and Mary Anne Mason concurring. 

The Williams’ complaint centered on injuries their son, Drew, purportedly suffered when he collided with a teammate in the first quarter of an Oct. 4, 2013, game between his Lane Tech High School squad and Dunbar. The collision left Drew’s teammate with a broken rib and ruptured spleen. Drew continued playing, and in the fourth quarter “appeared on the sideline dazed” and “suffered numerous brain bleeds as a result of continuing to play football.” 

Athletico was under a CPS contract, and Lane Tech hired Accelerated Rehab Centers to evaluate and treat injuries during football games. ARC assigned Buzon to Lane Tech. 

The complaint said the defendants were negligent in failing to assess Drew for head trauma after he suffered “a significant blow to the head,” noting he was not evaluated for a concussion until the fourth quarter. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing the Williamses failed to fully comply with civil procedure code regarding medical malpractice claims. Cook County Circuit Judge Moira S. Johnson denied that motion, but also certified three law questions for the appellate court to address.

According to Cook County court records, the Williamses are represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Corboy & Demetrio, of Chicago.

Athletico and its fellow defendants are defended by the firms of Cray Huber and Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck LLP, each of Chicago. 

The appellate panel combined consideration of the first two questions: Whether the Williamses, given the nature of their allegations, were required to submit a certificate from a health care professional. The third question asked, if such a certificate were required, would it have to come from someone in the same profession and license as Buzon, the athletic trainer. 

The relevant procedural code, Pierce wrote, is clear that certificates must be attached for complaints against “a doctor, physician, nurse or a hospital,” but not necessarily other professions. Athletico and the other defendants argued the complaint hinges on use of medical judgment, and said the Williams would need to present expert testimony, as a lay juror could not be expected to have relevant knowledge. 

The Williamses, however, say their complaint was not about “healing art malpractice” but whether defendants were “negligent in performing the activities they contracted to provide.” Pierce noted the defendants “were hired to provide services that only a licensed athletic trainer could provide,” but he said a lay jury could not determine the standard of care required of defendants. Further, he said the assertion the defendants should have evaluated Drew after the first-quarter collision implies exercising medical judgment. 

And while the appellate panel said it is cautious about issuing advisory opinions telling plaintiffs how to argue, “it appears that plaintiffs will need to establish that defendants failed to employ the degree of knowledge, skill and ability that a reasonable athletic trainer would employ under similar circumstances.” 

The justices ultimately decided the Williamses should have included in their complaint an affidavit and health professional’s report, and so remanded the case back to circuit court and ordered Judge Johnson to give the plaintiffs “a reasonable opportunity to comply.” 

However, the justices disagreed with the defendants on the third question of law. While the defendants had argued only a similarly licensed athletic trainer can supply such an affidavit, the justices said it needs only to come from “a physician licensed to practice medicine in all its branches who is otherwise qualified” under the relevant code.

According to Cook County court records, the Williamses are represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Corboy & Demetrio, of Chicago.

Athletico and its fellow defendants are defended by the firms of Cray Huber and Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck LLP, each of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Athletico, Ltd.Corboy & DemetrioCray Huber Horstman Heil and VanAusdal LLC Illinois First District Appellate CourtChicago Public SchoolsLane Technical College Prep High School