LOS ANGELES – In a verdict that could affect countless claims by athletes suing sports organizations for head injuries, a Los Angeles jury on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking $55 million by the widow of a former soccer player from USC who said the NCAA failed to protect him from a repeat head injury that led to his death.
Matthew Gee, a linebacker on the 1990 Rose Bowl-winning team, suffered about 6,000 hits as a varsity athlete, his widow’s attorneys said. They alleged that those impacts caused permanent brain damage and led to cocaine and alcohol abuse that eventually killed him at age 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 brought on by untreated hypertension and acute toxicity from cocaine. An NCAA attorney said Gee suffered from numerous other non-football health issues, such as cirrhosis of the liver, which ultimately killed him.
Hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits have been filed by college footballers against the NCAA over the past decade, but Gee’s was the first to reach a jury. The lawsuit alleged that the blows to the head resulted in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease known by the acronym CTE.
Judge Terry Green told jurors in Los Angeles Superior Court that they had “made history” in the first case of its kind.
The result could serve as a cautionary tale to attorneys preparing to bring similar cases to trial, said Dan Lust, a sports law attorney and professor at New York Law School. Before the trial, he said a Gee victory could have opened the floodgates against the NCAA. Now the NCAA has more leverage in future cases.
“Any attorney for the plaintiff is going to think twice about putting all the chips on the table and pushing them in the middle and saying, ‘We’re going to take our case to court and see what happens,'” Lust said. “You’ll be much less inclined to take that risk from a cost-benefit perspective.”
Alana Gee choked up as the verdict was read and then had tears in her eyes. She told one of her lawyers that she did not understand how the jury came to this decision, but personally thanked the seven women and five men as they left the courtroom. She declined to comment afterward.
“We feel deep sympathy for the Gee family from the outset,” NCAA attorney Will Stute said. “But we believe this verdict is vindication of the position we have taken in all of these cases, which is that science and medicine in Matthew Gee’s case have not supported causation.”
Stute had argued that the medical evidence is unclear about the causes of CTE and the impacts of this disease.
Lawyers for Gee said CTE, which is found in athletes and military veterans who have suffered repetitive brain injury, 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 began to overeat and to abuse drugs and alcohol.
The NCAA said the case was based on what it knew when Gee played, from 1988 to 1992, and not on CTE, which was first discovered in the brain of a deceased player from the NFL in 2005.
Gee never reported having had a concussion and said in an application to play with the Raiders after graduating that he had never been knocked out, Stute said.
“You can’t hold the NCAA responsible for something 40 years later that nobody ever reported,” Stute said in his closing argument. “The plaintiffs want you in a time machine. We don’t have one… at the NCAA. It is not fair.”
Lawyers for Gee’s family say there is no doubt that Matt Gee suffered concussions and countless sub-concussive blows.
Mike Salmon, a teammate who went on to play in the NFL, testified that Gee, who was team captain in his senior year, was once so dazed by a hit he couldn’t call the play next.
Gee was one of five linebackers on the 1989 Trojans team who died before he turned 50. All showed signs of mental deterioration associated with head trauma.
As with teammate and NFL star Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012, Gee’s brain was posthumously examined at Boston University’s Center for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and found to have a ETC.
Jurors were not allowed to hear testimony about Gee’s deceased teammates.
Lawyers for Alana Gee had argued that the NCAA, which was founded in 1906 for athlete safety, had been aware of the impacts of head injuries since the 1930s but had failed to educate players , prohibit head-first contact, or implement baseline testing for concussion symptoms.
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