The concussion lawsuit filed by the widow of former University of Southern California (USC) linebacker Matthew Gee against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has gone to trial, and may be the first of its kind to go to trial before a jury.
Testimony in the trial began on October 21. The wrongful death lawsuit alleges that the NCAA, despite being aware of decades’ worth of scientific knowledge regarding the dangers of repeated impacts like Gee was subjected to, failed to implement procedures which were adequate to protect Gee and other football players from personal injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The lawsuit claims that this failure of the NCAA’s ultimately led to Gee’s death and posthumous CTE diagnosis.
A verdict in favor of Gee’s widow could lead to a flood of concussion lawsuits against the NCAA filed by and on behalf of former football players. The NCAA received over $1 billion in revenue in 2021.
In 2018, the NCAA reached a settlement, which was undisclosed, with the widow of former Texas Longhorns defensive tackle and linebacker Greg Ploetz after just three days of a trial in which the widow’s lawyers argued that the NCAA was responsible for Ploetz’s death and brain injuries.
Complaint Alleges That The NCAA’s Negligence Led To Gee’s Death
The complaint in the lawsuit alleges that, due to the NCAA’s negligence, Gee suffered brain injuries which caused his mental state to begin to deteriorate in 2013 and ultimately led to his death in 2018. California law holds negligent parties liable for harm caused by their negligence.
Complaint: Gee Sustained “Multiple Concussions” While Playing For USC
Gee played linebacker for the USC Trojans from 1988 to 1992, sustaining “multiple concussions” and “countless sub-concussive blows to the head,” according to the complaint.
Two of Gee’s ex-teammates testified at depositions regarding what it was like to play football at USC during the time period Gee played for the Trojans.
“It was our job to make helmet-to-helmet contact in the ‘80s,” said former nose tackle Gene Fruge. “That was your job, to explode the man in front of you.”
“I saw him quite a bit coming back to the huddle. You could tell… he wasn’t all there,” said former teammate Mike Salmon, who said that linebackers such as Gee were often “out of it” during practice.
Gee, according to the complaint, led a relatively normal life for around 20 years after leaving USC. Gee married, had multiple kids and started an insurance business.
However, according to the complaint, Gee start losing his temper and becoming confused in 2013, experiencing a fluctuating mental state, losing control of his impulses and emotions, becoming depressed and experiencing memory loss.
Gee continued to decline over the next several years, according to the complaint, telling a physician in 2018 that sometimes days went by without him remembering what happened.
Gee died in 2018, tissue samples from his brain were sent to Boston University afterwards, and, according to the complaint, the conclusion of a neuropathological assessment of Gee’s brain was that he suffered from CTE, which “likely contributed to his mood, behavioral, and cognitive dysfunction.”
The complaint claims that “no adequate concussion management protocols or policies” were in place while Gee played for USC because of the NCAA’s failure to implement or adopt sufficient concussion management protocols or return to play guidelines. The complaint alleges that every time Gee suffered a head impact, the NCAA deprived him of the necessary medical treatment and attention it knew was needed to deal properly with traumatic brain injuries.
Complaint: Science Has Known About Long-Term Effects Of Head Impacts For Over 100 Years
Science has known, according to the complaint, that head impacts could lead to long-term or permanent brain damage for over 100 years:
- In 1905, Sir William Bennett, a surgeon, noted that concussions can occur even when “no loss of consciousness occurs at all,” and that these concussions can “have far graver results” than concussions which are immediately treated due to loss of consciousness. Bennett noted that, regarding mild concussions, “it is common for the recovery to be only partial.” Bennett noted that symptoms of impartial recovery from concussions included criminal inclinations, ill-temper, proneness to suicide, and insanity.
- In 1905, Journal of the American Medical Association editors noted that football players risked being left a “lunatic for life,” mentioning “brain injuries resulting in insanity.”
- Doctors Vincent Giliberti and Michael Osnato, in 1927, discussed a disease they referred to as traumatic encephalitis. The doctors concluded that “young men knocked out in football” could end up with brain disease.
- Dr. Harrison Martland published Punch Drunk in 1928, in which he noted that boxers who suffered head injuries suffered chronic symptoms such as vertigo, tremulousness, Parkinsonian gait, and “mental deterioration” necessitating institutionalization in an asylum.
- Studies from 1934, 1937 and 1938 studied boxers whose chronic neurological symptoms such as motor function impairment and dementia were caused by repeated head injuries.
- Psychiatrists Abram Blau and Karl M. Bowman described “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” in 1940 when describing how the mental states of boxers deteriorated over time.
- Dr. Edward J. Carroll, Jr., in 1936, published Punch-Drunk in the American Journal of Medical Science. Caroll stated that “no head blow is taken with impunity, and each knock-out causes definite and irreparable damage. If such trauma is repeated for a long enough period, it is inevitable that nerve cell insufficiency will develop ultimately.” Carroll noted that this applied to football players as well.
- In 1952, Augustus Thorndike, M.D. recommended that football players quit the sport for good after receiving a third concussion.
- The Chief Medical Officer of the British Boxing Board of Control, in 1975, stated that “anything which entails intermittent trauma to the head can cause [irreversible brain damage].”
Complaint Seeks Wrongful Death And Survival Action Damages Based On Negligence
The complaint seeks survival action and wrongful death damages, alleging these are warranted because of the NCAA’s negligence.
The complaint argues the NCAA had a duty of care to promote and protect the health of football players, noting that the NCAA’s own website states that “in 1906, the NCAA was founded to keep college athletes safe.”
The complaint also points out that the NCAA, in the 1933 Sports Medicine Handbook, stated that head injuries “are in a category by themselves and warrant special attention,” and “often are more severe in their immediate and remote consequences” when compared to other injuries.
The complaint claims that the NCAA was negligent by:
- Failing to sufficiently monitor and recognize concussive and sub-concussive injuries during games and practices
- Failing to sufficiently inform Gee about the dangers of sub-concussive and concussive injuries
- Failing to sufficiently implement and design return to play rules for football players who received sub-concussive or concussive injuries or were suspected of receiving these injuries
- Failing to sufficiently implement and design procedures for monitoring football players’ health after they received, or were suspected of receiving sub-concussive or concussive injuries
- Failing to provide Gee sufficient warning, treatment and notification for latent neuro-behavioral and neuro-cognitive effects of sub-concussive and concussive injuries after he left USC
The complaint seeks wrongful death damages for but not limited to the loss of Gee’s support, care, companionship, advice, past and future earnings, moral support and financial support.
The complaint seeks compensation for damages that Gee incurred prior to his death, including permanent brain damage, pain and suffering, care expenses, medical costs, lost time, out of pocket expenses, a significant loss of enjoyment of life, and lost earnings.
Causation The Key In Potential Jury Trial
If Gee’s lawsuit goes to trial before a jury, the key for the plaintiff’s lawyers will be proving proximate cause. The lawyers representing Gee’s widow must be able to prove that Gee developed CTE because of injuries he sustained while playing football in college, and that Gee ultimately died due to this CTE.
As for if Gee’s injuries were caused by playing football, the plaintiff’s lawyers will likely rely on expert witnesses in the form of doctors who will probably testify that it’s reasonably certain that Gee would not have developed CTE had he not played college football. The NCAA’s lawyers will likely argue that it’s impossible to prove that something else didn’t cause Gee’s CTE.
As for Gee’s CTE causing his death, the NCAA has blamed Gee’s death on drugs and alcohol, stating that “Mr. Gee used alcohol and drugs to cope with a traumatic childhood, to fill in the loss of identity he felt after his football playing days ended, and to numb the chronic and increasing pain caused by numerous health issues.”
However, the plaintiff’s lawyers will likely argue that alcohol and drug abuse are common symptoms of those with CTE.
The plaintiff’s lawyers will also need to convince a potential jury that the NCAA knew or should have known about the long-term effects of injuries to the head that football players sustain, yet failed to protect and warn players. Scientific evidence going back over 100 years suggests that playing football can lead to permanent brain damage, but numerous major breakthroughs specifically linking CTE with repetitive head trauma didn’t occur until the 1990s and later, after Gee had played football at USC.