A judge in Philadelphia has refused the multi-million dollar settlement agreed upon between the National Football League and retired players over the long-term effects of head injuries.
In court papers filed this morning, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody denied the settlement on grounds that the $760 million agreement didn’t do enough to address players not named in the original suit.
“Despite the potential benefits of class actions, their binding effect on absentee parties remains a significant concern,” wrote Brody in her 12-page opinion.
Brody said there needs to be a way to ensure that the 20,000 men not named in the current suit be potentially compensated over 65 years and that the $675 million might not be enough to properly do so. She said she is mostly concerned that not all retired players who are someday diagnosed with a related brain injury will be paid.
The same judge had earlier granted preliminary approval of the settlement pending her final review. She said she had no reason to believe that the existing settlement was reached in anything but “good faith” so she asked the NFL and former players to share documents in hopes of a resolution.
The NFL and more than 4,500 former players reached the settlement in August with an agreement that money would compensate ex-players with concussion-related problems while funding medical exams and medical research.
The plaintiffs include at least 10 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett. They also include Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the family of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.
Many former players with neurological conditions believe their problems stem from on-field concussions. The lawsuits accused the league of hiding known risks of concussions for decades to return players to games and protect its image.
The NFL has denied any wrongdoing and has insisted that safety has always been a top priority.
The settlement likely meant the NFL wouldn't have to disclose internal files about what it knew, when, about concussion-linked brain problems. Lawyers had been eager to learn, for instance, about the workings of the league's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which was led for more than a decade by a rheumatologist.
In court arguments in April, NFL lawyer Paul Clement asked Brody to dismiss the lawsuits and send them to arbitration under terms of the players' contract. He said that individual teams bear the chief responsibility for health and safety under the collective bargaining agreement, along with the players' union and the players themselves.
Players lawyer David Frederick accused the league of concealing studies linking concussions to neurological problems for decades.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other concussed athletes have been diagnosed after their deaths with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Those ex-players included Seau and lead plaintiff Ray Easterling, who filed the first suit in Philadelphia in August 2011 but later committed suicide.
About one-third of the league's 12,000 former players have joined the litigation since 2011. They include a few hundred "gap" players, who played during years when there was no labor contract in place, and were therefore considered likely to win the right to sue.
The timing of the original settlement allowed the NFL to drop the issue from the national conversation before the start of the new season. This halting of the agreement puts it back in the national conversation right before conference championship games.
Concussions -- and the former players' lawsuits -- had become a main theme of recent NFL seasons, with players, coaches and league officials all forced to address the topic repeatedly, especially as new plaintiffs came forward on nearly a weekly basis. It was the sort of public relations distraction the league has become skilled at avoiding -- and the easiest way to set this topic aside, of course, was to have the court cases resolved.
Now, the issue will be back in the headlines before the NFL's biggest games including next month's Super Bowl.
The latest decision came a week after lawyers laid out a lengthy payout plan with proposed awards would reach $5 million for athletes with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease; $4 million for a death involving brain trauma; and $3 million for dementia cases.