But as our understanding of the long-term consequences of repetitive hits to the brain have expanded, there is more of a focus on head injury early diagnosis, treatment and education.
Sadly, all that comes too late for a young former player in Wisconsin, who died in the summer of 2012 of suicide. He hanged himself. An autopsy would later reveal the young man, Joseph Chernach, suffered from a disease known as Dementia Pugilistica or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It was determined this condition, caused by repeated concussions incurred while playing youth football, was a “substantial” factor in his suicide, as it has caused him to suffer severe emotional, behavioral, cognitive and physical problems. He was also suffering from Post Concussion Syndrome at the time of his death, at age 25.
His mother filed a lawsuit against Pop Warner, the organization for which her son played starting at age 11. It’s the biggest and oldest youth football program in the country,hosting some 225,000 young tackle football players and an additional 100,000 youths in dance and cheer programs.
And now, the organization has settled a lawsuit with Chernach’s mother. The case is noteworthy because most publicity and litigation surrounding the sport has focused on the National Football League (NFL) and college teams. This case shows us how extremely damaging these repeated hits can be on very young players.
In Pyka v. Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., filed in Wisconsin, plaintiff sought $5 million in damages. It was alleged the organization knew about the potential risks to young players and also that the danger they faced was even more serious than for older players. And yet, defendant failed to warn either players or their parents about that danger.
Further, the lawsuit alleged the organization was negligent in organizing, promoting and allowing children to play with helmets that were disproportionately heavy for their necks and bodies.
With all this, plaintiffs alleged, Pop Warner intentionally, maliciously or recklessly exposed children to the risk of serious injury to their head, brain and other body parts.
The agency and its insurance company, Lexington Insurance Company, did not reveal for how much the case was settled, but we do know the organization carried a $2 million-per-player liability policy at the time Chernach played. Today, the organization has half that amount of per-player liability coverage.
Following the settlement agreement, the organization said it takes the safety of its players very seriously and within the last six years has undertaken a number of different initiatives to make the sport safer. Among them:
- Full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills are no longer allowed.
- There are new rules that limit the amount of contact a player can have at each practice.
- All athletes suspected of suffering a concussion or head injury are immediately removed from practice, competition or play.
- Any athlete removed for suspicion of a head injury or concussion is not allowed to return until he or she has been cleared by a licensed physician.
This case is just one of several the agency is facing down. It is probable that as awareness grows about this issue and also this settlement, the number of sports injury lawsuits filed against the organization will increase.
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Pop Warner Football Settles Wisconsin Head Injury Lawsuit, March 21, 2016, By Stephanie K. Jones, Insurance Journal
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