LOS ANGELES – In a verdict that could impact countless claims by athletes suing sports organizations for head injuries, a Los Angeles jury on Tuesday dismissed a $55 million lawsuit filed by the widow of a former California football player. USC which said the NCAA failed to protect him from repeated head injuries that led to his death.
Matthew Gee, a linebacker on the 1990 Rose Bowl-winning team, took about 6,000 hits as a varsity athlete, his widow’s lawyers said. They claimed that these impacts caused permanent brain damage and led to cocaine and alcohol use which ultimately killed him at the age of 49.
The NCAA, the governing body for US college sports, said it had nothing to do with Gee’s death, which it said was sudden cardiac arrest caused by untreated high blood pressure and acute cocaine toxicity. An NCAA attorney said Gee suffered from several other non-football-related health issues, such as cirrhosis of the liver, that would eventually kill him.
Hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits have been filed by college football players against the NCAA over the past decade, but Gee’s was the first to reach a jury. The suit alleged that blows to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease known by the acronym CTE.
Judge Terry Green told Los Angeles Superior Court jurors they “made history” in the first such case.
“We are pleased that the jury, after considering four weeks of evidence and testimony, has overwhelmingly agreed with our position in this case,” NCAA senior vice president of legal affairs and general counsel Scott Bearby said in a statement. . “The NCAA bears no responsibility for Mr. Gee’s tragic death, and furthermore, the case has not been supported by the medical science linking Mr. Gee’s death to his college football career. We express our deepest condolences to the family of the Mr. Gee”.
The statement also said the organization “will continue to aggressively defend itself against cases like this that unfairly attempt to exploit the legal system to unfairly target the NCAA.”
The verdict will likely give the NCAA more leverage in future cases, said Dan Lust, a sports law attorney and professor at New York Law School.
“Any plaintiff’s attorney will think twice before putting all the chips on the table and shoving them in the middle and saying, ‘We’ll take our case to trial and see what happens,'” Lust said.
Alana Gee felt choked when the verdict was read and tears came to her eyes afterwards. She told one of her attorneys that she did not understand how the jury arrived at the decision, but she personally thanked the seven women and five men of the jury as they left the courtroom. She declined to comment afterwards.
Gabe Feldman, a sports law professor at Tulane University, said proving Gee died specifically from unseen injuries sustained at USC — and not something that occurred before or after his college career — was always going to be a challenge, especially when he had so many other health issues.
This was further complicated by the NCAA argument that they did their best to be safe with the information they had at the time and that players were taking the risks of an inherently dangerous sport.
“Given the unpopularity of the NCAA and a sympathetic plaintiff, and the jury has still ruled against the plaintiff, that’s quite indicative,” Feldman said. case that could potentially provide a roadmap for hundreds or thousands of other plaintiffs.”
The judging panel had to vote at least 9-3 to reach a verdict on questions asking whether or not the NCAA had done anything that increased Gee’s risks and hadn’t taken steps that would minimize Gee’s risks without affecting the sport . or football. The panel voted 11-1 and 10-2 answering these questions in favor of the NCAA.
“We have had deep sympathy for the Gee family from the start,” said NCAA attorney Will Stute. “But we feel this verdict is a vindication of the stand we’ve taken in all these cases, which is science and medicine in Matthew Gee’s Circumstance did not support causation”.
Stute had argued that the medical evidence is unclear about what causes CTE and what the impacts of that disease are.
Gee’s lawyers said CTE, which is found in athletes and military veterans who have sustained repetitive brain injuries, was an indirect cause of death because head trauma has been shown to promote substance abuse.
Alana Gee had testified that the college sweethearts had a good 20 years of marriage before her husband’s mental health began to deteriorate and he became angry, depressed and impulsive, and he began overeating and abusing drugs and alcohol.
The NCAA said the case stemmed from what it knew at the time Gee played, from 1988 to ’92, and not from the CTE, which was first discovered in the brain of a deceased NFL player in 2005.
Gee never reported having a concussion and said in an application to play for the Raiders after graduation that he had never fainted, Stute said.
“You can’t hold the NCAA accountable for something that 40 years later no one has ever reported,” Stute said in his closing argument. “The plaintiffs want you in a time travel machine. We don’t have one at the NCAA. That’s not fair.” .”
Lawyers for Gee’s family said there was no doubt Matt Gee suffered concussions and countless sub-concussive blows.
Mike Salmon, a teammate who went on to play in the NFL, tested that Gee, who was team captain his senior year, was once so dazed from a hit that he couldn’t call the next play.
Gee was one of five linebackers on the 1989 Trojans team who died before turning 50. All showed signs of mental deterioration associated with head trauma.
As with teammate and NFL star Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, Gee’s brain was examined posthumously at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and found to have CTE.
Jurors were not allowed to hear testimony about Gee’s deceased teammates.
Alana Gee’s lawyers had argued that the NCAA, founded in 1906 for the safety of athletes, had known about impacts from head injuries since the 1930s but failed to educate players, ban head-on contact or implement baseline testing for concussion symptoms.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.