Professional sports organizations may again have to answer allegations by players related to head trauma and concussions in certain contact sports. The National Hockey League (NHL) has begun settlement discussions pursuant to a concussion lawsuit initiated by former players in federal court in St. Paul. The case has been pending for almost four years. The players allege that the NHL misled them by failing to disclose the dangers associated with repeated head traumas in the course of their careers and did not implement protocols to protect the players. The parties are now being encouraged by the judge to engage in talks with a mediator to attempt to settle the matter.
The NHL maintains that the claim has no merit and that the organization acted reasonably given what was known at the time about head trauma and concussions. The NHL states that it implemented measures to understand and manage the risks, but that players were well aware of the dangers posed by playing the sport.
The plaintiffs consist of 100 former NHL players and will not be expanded as a result of the court’s denial of a motion to certify the case as a class action lawsuit in July. Had the judge allowed the case to proceed as a class action, another 5000 former players would have been included in the lawsuit. Instead, the NHL will have to defend each of the cases individually. While the plaintiff class won’t expand- an ostensible win for the defendant- there are some disadvantages for the NHL in trying the cases separately. New juries for each case will have to be selected which heightens the unpredictability of the outcome. Also, discovery for multiple, separate trials will be laborious. The length of the discovery process could also increase the risk of unfavorable information coming to light. Still, some experts believe that the NHL is in a good position to settle now following the motion denying the class action as some players may be more willing to settle for a smaller sum.
The court noted that the possibility still exists to try a “bellwether” case. This means that one of the lawsuits would proceed to trial as a “test” to evaluate whether the matter should be resolved individually in various courts or as a single comprehensive claim.
The concussion lawsuit brought by former NFL players resulted in plaintiffs being able to receive as much as $5 million per player. However, the NHL is not as large and lucrative as the NFL and players’ salaries are considerably smaller. It is unlikely that players would be eligible for such large settlements.
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