LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a verdict that could sway countless claims by athletes who are suing sports organizations over head injuries, a Los Angeles jury on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit seeking $55 million from the widow of a former USC football player who said The NCAA failed to protect him from the repeated head injuries that led to his death.
Matthew Gee, a defenseman for the team that won the Rose Bowl in 1990, survived about 6,000 hits as a college athlete, his widow’s lawyers said. They claimed these strokes caused permanent brain damage and led to an addiction to cocaine and alcohol that eventually killed him at the age of 49.
The NCAA, the governing body for American college sports, said it had nothing to do with Gee’s death, which was a sudden cardiac arrest caused by untreated high blood pressure and acute cocaine toxicity.
College football players have brought hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against the NCAA over the past decade, but Gee was the first to reach a jury. The lawsuit alleged that the blows to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease known by the acronym CTE.
Judge Terry Green told jurors at the Los Angeles Superior Court that they “made history” in the first case of their kind.
The verdict likely gives the NCAA more leverage in future cases, said Dan Lust, a sports law attorney and professor at New York Law School.
“The plaintiff’s lawyer will think twice before putting all the chips on the table, moving them to the center and saying, ‘We’ll take our case to court and see what happens,'” Lust said.
Alana Gee choked as the verdict was read, then had tears in her eyes. She told one of her lawyers that she did not understand how the jury reached such a decision, but she personally thanked the seven women and five men on the panel as they left the courtroom. She later declined to comment.
Gabe Feldman, a professor of sports law at Tulane University, said proving Gee’s death as a result of unseen injuries sustained at USC – and not something that happened before or after his college career – would always be a challenge, especially when he had so many other health problems.
The situation was further complicated by the NCAA’s argument that they had done everything in their power to be safe with the information they had at the time, and that players were taking risks in an inherently dangerous sport.
“Given the unpopularity of the NCAA and the likable plaintiff, and the jury still ruling against the plaintiff, that’s pretty telling,” said Feldman. “It was a calculated risk on the part of the NCAA, who took the case to court knowing it could be a lead case that could potentially provide an action plan for hundreds or thousands of other claimants.”
The jury had to vote at least 9-3 to reach a verdict on questions regarding whether or not the NCAA did or did not do something that increased the risk to Gee and did not take measures that would minimize the risk to Gee without changing the sport of soccer. The panel voted 11-1 and 10-2, answering these questions in favor of the NCAA.
“From the beginning, we have felt deep sympathy for the Gee family,” said NCAA lawyer Will Stute. “But we feel this verdict confirms the position we have taken in all these cases, which is that science and medicine in Matthew Gee’s circumstances did not support causation.”
Stute argued that the medical evidence is unclear what causes CTE and what the effects of the disease are.
Gee’s attorneys said CTE, which occurs in athletes and military veterans who have suffered repeated brain injuries, was an indirect cause of death because head trauma has been shown to promote substance abuse.
Alana Gee testified that the college sweetheart had 20 good years of marriage before her husband’s mental health began to deteriorate and he became angry, depressed and impulsive and began overeating and abusing drugs and alcohol.
The NCAA said the case was based on what it knew at the time Gee played from 1988-92, not CTEs first discovered in the brain of a deceased NFL player in 2005.
Gee never reported having a concussion and said in a post-graduation game entry with the Raiders that he never passed out, Stute said.
“You can’t hold the NCAA responsible for something 40 years later that nobody ever reported on,” Stute said in his closing address. “The plaintiffs want you in a time travel machine. We don’t have that… in the NCAA. It’s unfair.”
Attorneys for the Gee family said there was no question that Matt Gee suffered a concussion and countless post-concussion blows.
Mike Salmon, a teammate who played in the NFL, testified that Gee, who captained the team in his senior year, was once so stunned by a hit he couldn’t announce the next game.
Gee was one of five defenders on the 1989 Trojans team who died before the age of 50. All showed signs of mental deterioration related to the head injury.
As with teammate and NFL star Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, Gee’s brain was post-mortem examined at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and found to be CTE.
Jurors were not allowed to hear testimony about Gee’s deceased teammates.
Alana Gee’s lawyers argued that the NCAA, which was founded in 1906 to keep athletes safe, had known about the effects of head injuries since the 1930s.