Can you recover damages for your football injury?
Korey Stringer, an All-American offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, was practicing with the rest of the offensive line on a practice field in Mankato, Minnesota on a hot July afternoon in 2001 when he suddenly dropped down to one knee.
A few moments later, he struggled to his feet and walked off the field. A reporter saw him stumble and lurch into the air-conditioned media center that leads to the trainer’s office before collapsing.
The 21-year-old Stringer was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead from a heat stroke a few hours later. His body had reached a core temperature of 108 degrees.
Football has been “America’s game” for the past half-century. Sports fans spend more money and give more time to football than any other sport. What’s more, participation is high among men and women of all ages, and it’s by far the most popular sport for high school boys to play. But the game has a troubling history of serious and often preventable injuries.
So what happens when someone is injured playing football? Can they recover damages?
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at football injuries and personal injury claims.
Football participation and injury statistics
In 2018, approximately 5.16 million people over the age of 6 participated in tackle football in the United States. The number of male participants playing organized football at the high school level was roughly 1 million, and the number of female participants was just below 3,000. As for pop warner leagues, 1.2 million children ages 6-12 participated in 2018.
Though these numbers are high, football participation has actually been declining for the last few years. Youth participation has declined more than 30% from its peak in 2008, and high school participation has declined almost 10% from its peak in 2009.
There are several reasons for the decline in participation, including the shuttering of schools and the rise in popularity of other sports. However, researchers believe the largest reason for the decline in participation is the concern over injuries. Even some high-profile NFL players are leaving the league over injury concerns.
How concerned should football players be about injuries?
According to the National Safety Council (NSC), more than 341,000 football injuries required a trip to the emergency room in 2017.
|Football injuries requiring a trip to the emergency room by age (2017)|
|Total Injuries||0-5||6-14||15-24||25-64||65 and older|
Source: National Safety Council
Fatalities in football are rare, but they do happen — as the Korey Stringer case shows. A total of 12 football-related deaths were recorded in 2018, according to a report published by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. The number of deaths continues the 10-year trend of football-related fatalities at an overall rate of .021 per 100,000 football participants.
What’s more, injuries may be underreported in football for a couple of reasons. First, football players are often taught to “play through the pain.” As a consequence, some injuries go unnoticed. Second, most football organizations aren’t legally required to keep track of injuries. Third, the symptoms of certain injuries don’t appear until after the player is done playing football.
With respect to this last point, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain disorder that is particularly prevalent among football players and caused by repeated head injuries. The symptoms of CTE get worse over time but may not be noticed for months, years, or even decades after the last blow to the head.
Common football injuries
Football is considered one of the most dangerous sports to play and, if you’ve ever watched a football game, it’s not hard to understand why.
Football injuries, ranging from minor to catastrophic, occur during football games and practices due to the full-contact nature of the sport. What’s more, because football is played outside in heavy equipment, heat-related injuries are a concern.
Let’s take a closer look at a few notable football injuries:
Concussions and other brain injuries
Concussions occur when an impact (such as another player making a tackle) causes the brain to hit the inside of the skull. Symptoms include:
- Memory problems
- Blurry vision
- Loss of consciousness
One of the reasons concussions are so prevalent among football players is that a person who suffers 1 concussion is much more likely to suffer a 2nd concussion. The CDC reports that having more than 1 concussion can cause depression, anxiety, aggression, personality changes, and an increased risk of certain disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Concussions (or even repeated blows to the head that don’t result in concussions) can lead to CTE. CTE is a degenerative brain disorder that may not show symptoms until months, years, or even decades after the injury. Common symptoms of CTE include memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, and depression.
Heat-related injuries, like the one suffered by Korey Stringer, are a concern for football players, especially when practices begin (usually in August). The earliest symptoms of a heat injury are painful cramping of major muscle groups. If not treated with cooling and water, these cramps can progress to heat exhaustion and heat stroke (a condition caused by your body overheating, which can result in brain damage, organ damage, and even death).
Fortunately, heat-related illnesses can be prevented. Here are some tips:
- Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, and get adequate rest.
- Monitor fluid loss by weighing yourself before and after every practice.
- Know the symptoms of heat stroke (altered mental state, slurred speech, nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, rapid breathing, racing heart rate, headache).
- Wear clothes that help wick sweat away from the body and keep you cool.
- Take extra precautions with certain medications that can affect your body’s ability to stay hydrated and dissipate heat.
- Coaches should encourage players to speak up when they’re feeling uncomfortable.
- Coaches should have a plan to help athletes quickly cool down when they become overheated.
Spinal cord injuries
There are 31 pairs of nerves that spread out from the spinal cord into the arms, chest, legs, and abdomen. The nerves at the top of the spine are in charge of upper body movement and the ones at the bottom of the spine control lower body movement.
Paralysis, which can be partial or full, occurs when the nerves that spread out from the spinal cord are damaged. In football, paralysis is most often caused by helmet-lead tackling. Shockingly, this type of tackling was the direct cause of 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968. Safety innovations and rule changes have since made football-related paralysis far less common.
Liability for football injuries
Football is a physical sport and some injuries are inevitable. A player might jam their finger while diving for a football or break their arm while being tackled. These sorts of injuries are typically not recoverable, unless the athlete is a professional and is eligible for workers’ compensation.
However, when injuries occur as a result of actions that are beyond the scope ordinarily contemplated for the activity, several parties may be liable depending on the nature of the injury. Potentially liable parties include: coaches, schools and other organizations, players, manufacturers, and medical professionals.
Coaches have a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable risks of harm to their players. A coach may be liable for a player’s injuries if they breach this duty by, for example, forcing a player to return to a game when they’re showing signs of a concussion.
Ryan Spence v. Nicholas Banschback
The parents of Ryan Spence, a 12-year-old football player, sued Ryan’s coach, Nicholas Banschbach, for negligence after Nicholas swung a tackling dummy at Ryan’s legs during practice. The dummy tore Ryan’s cruciate ligament and other cartilage and ligaments in his knee.
The lawsuit alleged that the “tackling dummy drill” was highly unorthodox and that it was illegal because of its propensity for causing injury.
The parties ultimately reached an out-of-court settlement.
Schools or athletic organizations
Schools and sports organizations generally owe a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable risks of harm to the players in their school or organization. A school or organization may be liable if they breach this duty by, for example, failing to remedy a dangerous condition (such as a slippery concrete surface around the perimeter of the field) or failing to implement a concussion protocol.
A school or organization may also be liable for the actions of their coaches or other employees under the doctrine of respondeat superior.
During a high school football game at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, California, 14-year-old football player Rashaun Council started feeling sick and confused. A concerned teammate told their coach about Rashaun’s strange behavior, but the coach kept Rashaun in the game.
In the locker room after the game, Rashaun vomited several times. Despite the obvious signs of distress, the coaches didn’t call 9-1-1 or follow proper concussion protocol. Rashaun’s father took Rashaun to the hospital that evening where Rashaun underwent emergency surgery to relieve swelling in his brain.
Rashaun sued the coaching staff and the school for negligence. He was awarded $7.1 million.
Other football players may be liable for your injury if your injury was the result of actions that are outside the scope normally permitted by the sport.
During a professional football game between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Myles Garrett, a defensive player for the Browns, tackled Mason Rudolph, a quarterback for the Steelers. A scuffle ensued after the play was whistled dead. During the scuffle, Myles removed Mason’s helmet and hit him over the head with it.
Though Mason has not yet filed a lawsuit against Myles, his attorney indicated that he might. If he files a lawsuit, the challenge for Mason will be proving that he suffered damages, as he didn’t appear to be injured on the play.
A manufacturer might be liable under a product liability claim if the manufacturer sold a product (such as a football helmet or cleats) that was defective, lacked proper warnings, or was unreasonably dangerous.
Rhett Ridolfi, a high school football player, suffered a concussion that led to a serious brain injury. Rhett’s family sued the helmet maker Riddell and several of Rhett’s football coaches.
The jury found that Riddell was negligent in failing to warn people wearing their helmets about the dangers of concussions. The jury also found that Rhett’s coaches were negligent in failing to immediately take Rhett to the hospital. The jury assessed 27% of the fault for Rhett’s injuries to Riddell, making the company responsible for paying $3.1 million in damages.
A medical malpractice claim might be appropriate if a doctor failed to properly diagnose a football player’s condition or gave improper advice.
Minnesota Vikings defensive player Sharrif Floyd filed a $180 million medical malpractice lawsuit against orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews.
Sharrif contends that he consented to a minor knee-scope procedure, but that Dr. Andrews instead performed a more invasive cartilage-regrowth procedure that Sharrif did not and would not have consented to.
What’s more, Sharrif claims that Dr. Andrews recklessly delegated decision-making authority concerning Sharrif’s care to relatively inexperienced surgical fellows and that Dr. Andrews administered postoperative treatment that was unnecessary and that caused Sharrif irreparable injury.
The lawsuit has not been resolved.
Wrongful death claims
A wrongful death claim might be appropriate if the football player suffered a fatal injury.
Wrongful death claims can be filed by certain family members of the deceased, and are intended to compensate family members for the loss of a loved one.
Common defenses to lawsuits based on football injuries
When a football player is injured, there are 3 defenses that are commonly raised by the defendant and their legal team:
- Assumption of the risk. The “assumption of the risk defense” says that a plaintiff who voluntarily participates in an activity is owed no duty of care with respect to the obvious risks associated with the activity. However, liability attaches where the defendant intentionally injures or engages in misconduct beyond the scope ordinary contemplated for the activity.For example, if you break your arm while being tackled, you can’t sue anyone for your injury because breaking a bone while being tackled is an inherent risk associated with the game of football. On the other hand, if a coach forces you to practice in full pads in the dead of summer without a break and you suffer a heat stroke, you can sue the coach because suffering a heat stroke is beyond the obvious risks associated with the game.
- Waiver of liability. Before participating in a football game, you may be asked to sign a waiver of liability. A waiver is simply an agreement wherein certain parties (usually the organizing association or school) are released from any liability related to injuries suffered. Every state treats waivers differently. In some states, waivers are unenforceable. In other states, waivers are upheld if they meet specific requirements.
- Statute of limitations. A statute of limitations specifies how long you have to bring a lawsuit against someone. If you fail to file a lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations, you’ll be prohibited from recovering any damages. Most states provide that the statute of limitations doesn’t start running until you discover your injury.
Special rules for claims involving minors
When minors sustain football injuries, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Most states don’t start the statute of limitations clock until the minor turns 18.
- Most states don’t allow minors to file their own lawsuits. Instead, an adult must be appointed to handle the case on their behalf (usually this is the parent, but not always).
- If damages are awarded in a claim involving a minor, the money must be placed in a special trust that isn’t made available to the minor until they turn 18.
Football injury damages
In a football injury case, you’re entitled to compensation from the person or entity legally responsible for your injuries. The legal term for this compensation is “damages.” Exactly what damages you can recover varies from state to state, but you can usually recover:
- Past and future medical expenses
- Future lost wages (if the injury limits your ability to work in the future)
- Property damages
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
How to prevent football injuries
Injuries are a part of the game, but the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons insists there are some things you can do to limit your chances of suffering a serious injury while playing football:
- Maintain your fitness during and outside of football season
- Have a pre-season physical to identify any conditions that might limit participation
- Warmup and stretch before practices and games
- Cool down and stretch after practices and games
- Stay hydrated
- Always wear protective equipment during practice and the game (helmet, mouth guard, athletic supporter, pads, etc.)
- Make sure coaches are knowledgeable about first aid and concussion symptoms
- Make sure coaches have a plan for emergencies
- Avoid the pressure to overtrain or return to a game before you’re ready
Hopefully, you’ll have a long and healthy football career. But if you’re injured, consider using our free online directory to locate an attorney in your area who can help you recover the damages you deserve.