Sports brain-injury law is needed, Pittsburgh attorney says
February 5, 2016 12:00 AM
Pete Marovich/Getty Images
Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu participates in a briefing sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Dr.Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in former NFL players.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The legal issue of head trauma in sports needs to be rebranded, from a sole focus on jarring, concussive blows to a broader view of repetitive hits to the head and the cognitive issues that result, a prominent concussion litigation attorney said Thursday.
What is the suggestion of Jason Luckasevic, a lawyer at Goldberg Persky & White in Pittsburgh? Sports brain-injury law. Concussions receive the majority of the attention, especially with regard to the NFL, but the long-term effects of a career’s worth of collisions — including memory loss, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — need consideration.
“Leagues are wanting it to be a concussion case, a concussion issue,” Mr. Luckasevic said Thursday at a Sports Concussion Litigation session at Duquesne University’s law school. “And get you to believe, and parents to believe, that this is all about one concussion. It’s not about one concussion, it’s about repeated trauma.”
Mr. Luckasevic, who graduated from Duquesne’s law school in 2000, began researching brain injuries after he crossed paths with Bennet Omalu, one of the leading researchers of CTE in former players. Dr. Omalu, a forensic pathologist for the Allegheny County Coroner’s office at the time, trained Mr. Luckasevic’s brother, Dr. Todd Luckasevic. Dr. Omalu swung by Mr. Luckasevic’s office in September 2006, Mr. Luckasevic said, on the day that a Steelers team physician and NFL doctor had discredited Dr. Omalu’s work in a newspaper article.
“‘You don’t know half the story,’” Dr. Omalu told Mr. Luckasevic. “And then he said to me, ‘You’re a good lawyer, you figure it out.’”
The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association appeared to block legal action against the league, Mr. Luckasevic said, until he took a closer look at the case of Korey Stringer. Mr. Stringer, a Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman, died of heatstroke during training camp in 2001. Mr. Stringer’s widow, Kelci, sued the NFL for wrongful death; the case was settled in 2009.
In July 2011, Mr. Luckasevic filed the first lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of 75 former players who had cognitive issues they believed resulted from their time in the league. That action grew from 75 plaintiffs to more than 5,000, and was settled in April. The NFL’s financial obligation could be $900 million or more.
A couple of hundred plaintiffs opted out of the settlement and can sue the NFL separately, and a federal judge recently approved a settlement in a similar lawsuit against the NCAA. In the future, Mr. Luckasevic said, high schools and colleges will also face lawsuits for personal injury.
There is also progress. Dr. Omalu helped develop TauMark, a radioactive tracking system intended to identify the tau proteins in the brain associated with CTE. The technology found CTE in former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill. On Thursday, Dr. Omalu told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that Mr. McNeill, who died in November, had CTE — meaning TauMark might be able to identify the disease in living people when previously only an autopsy could find it.
“The marks on his PET scan pre- and post-[death] were spot on,” said Mr. Luckasevic, who heard from Dr. Omalu on Thursday morning. “So I think we’re almost there.”
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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