Athletes often feel intense pressure to return to play after getting injured. Those who play through injuries are lauded as “leaders” and “tough competitors.”
Second impact syndrome is a reminder that all head and brain injuries are serious, and sometimes the bravest thing an athlete can do is sit on the sidelines.
The term “second impact syndrome” refers to a sequence of events in which a person who sustains a mild head injury before a concussion has fully healed can be seriously injured or even killed.
To put it another way:
Second impact syndrome most commonly impacts athletes, especially football players.
Consider the following hypothetical example:
The overall incidence of second impact syndrome is unknown. However, most researchers agree that second impact syndrome is extraordinarily rare.
Head injuries, on the other hand, are unfortunately quite common.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1.1 million patients with nonfatal traumatic brain injury (TBI) are treated in emergency departments annually. An estimated 300,000 TBIs are mild to moderate and roughly 235,000 require hospitalization.
Concussions affect about 128 people per 100,000 in the United States annually. Young children have the highest rates of concussion, with sports and bicycle accidents accounting for the majority of cases. Falls and vehicular accidents are the most common causes of concussion in older adults.
A number of states have passed laws specifically intended to prevent second impact syndrome.
The most well-known example of this is Washington’s Zack Lystadt law (sometimes called the “shake-it-off law”).
Zack Lystadt was a high school football player who sustained a head injury when his head struck the ground after tackling an opponent. A video of the game shows Zack grabbing his head and rocking back and forth. Despite the injury, Zack returned to the game after sitting out a few plays.
The following quarter, Zack collapsed on the field and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center where he underwent surgery to remove the left and right side of his skull in order to relieve the pressure from his swelling brain.
Zack suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the injury and it was nearly 3 years before he was able to stand, with assistance, on his own.
The state of Washington passed the Zack Lystadt law in 2009. The law requires that any youth showing signs of a concussion must be examined and cleared to play by a licensed healthcare provider trained in evaluating concussions before being allowed to return to the game.
Some sports injuries, particularly in contact sports like football, are inevitable. A player might break their finger diving for a ball or injure their shoulder getting tackled. However, when an athlete suffers an injury as a result of someone else’s carelessness, the athlete (or surviving family member) may be able to sue for negligence.
Let’s take a look at some parties that may be liable in a second impact syndrome lawsuit:
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.
Schools and athletic 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 implement a concussion protocol.
Other athletes may be liable, but only if their actions were outside the scope normally permitted by the sport.
In other words, a linebacker who tackles a quarterback isn’t liable if the quarterback suffers second impact syndrome as a result of the hit. However, if the linebacker approaches the quarterback during a time-out and punches him in the head, he may be held liable.
A manufacturer might be liable under a product liability claim if the manufacturer sold a product (such as a football helmet) that was defective, lacked proper warnings, or was unreasonably dangerous.
A medical malpractice claim might be appropriate if a doctor failed to properly diagnose a football player’s condition or gave improper advice.
If an athlete suffers a fatal second impact syndrome injury, certain surviving family members may be able to file a wrongful death claim. Wrongful death claims are intended to compensate family members for the loss of a loved one.
In a second impact syndrome 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: