Former Football Players and Their Families Fight to Hold Riddell Liable for Brain Injuries - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Former Football Players and Their Families Fight to Hold Riddell Liable for Brain Injuries

Former Football Players and Their Families Fight to Hold Riddell Liable for Brain Injuries

Each fall, football players across America take the field to face off against each other for four intense quarters week after week. The sport is one of the most popular sports to play among young males in the United States. According to a survey conducted by The National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,006,013 high school males participated in football during the 2018–19 academic year.1. These young players—equipped in shoulder pads, knee pads, mouth guards, and helmets—tackle, block, and run over each other to advance the ball toward the endzone. However, despite their protective gear, many players still sustain traumatic head injuries, resulting in long-term neurological damage, as well as death.2 Injured athletes and suffering family members have filed lawsuits to hold helmet manufacturers liable.3 At the center of these lawsuits is the world’s leading manufacturer of football helmets—Riddell Sports Group (“Riddell”).4

In 2013, 1,000 former NFL players filed a lawsuit against Riddell alleging that Riddell knew about the risk of concussion but failed to take any action to make their helmets more protective.5 Some players that wore the helmets between 1989 and 2013 developed long-term brain injuries, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”).6 CTE is a degenerative brain disease that affects a person’s mood and behavior.7 For example, CTE can cause “impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia.8 As the disease progresses, some patients may experience problems with “thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.”9 Former New York Giant Leonard Marshall, a plaintiff in the 2013 lawsuit, developed CTE after taking numerous hits to the head.10 He claimed that, had he known about the helmets, he would have worn a better one.11

On September 2014, Chelsea Oliver filed suit against Riddell, the NFL, and others after her husband—former San Diego Chargers player Paul Oliver—committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot.12. She claimed that Riddell and the league “conspired to cover up the danger of concussions and the inability of Riddell helmets to protect against them, contributing to her husband’s death.”13 Oliver voluntarily dismissed her suit and opted in to multidistrict litigation against the NFL.14 However, on March 11, 2016, Oliver and her two sons re-filed suit against Riddell claiming the company and its associates should be held liable for Paul Oliver’s death.15 Furthermore, Oliver alleged that the companies conspired to conceal from players “the problem of concussions in football and the resulting brain damage that led to degenerative brain conditions and mental illness in players.”16 That same year, in July, another suit was filed in Cook County against Riddell. In the July suit, former NFL player Paul Hornung asserted that the Riddell failed to warn him and other players that their helmets would not prevent head concussions despite the company knowing about the dangers of brain trauma.17 One week later, a group of former NFL players, including former Steelers Pro Bowl receiver Yancey Thigpen, filed a similar lawsuit against Riddell.18 These players also alleged that the helmet manufacturer did not warn them about the long-term health risks that the helmets would not protect them from.19 Professional football players and their families are not the only ones that have filed suit against Riddell. High school and college players have brought claims after suffering from similar injuries.

On January 30, 2017, thirty-four former college football players filed a class action complaint against Riddell and its subsidiaries.20 The plaintiffs argued that Riddell “knowingly and negligently developed, designed, tested, marketed, promoted, advertised, distributed and sold dangerous and defective football helmets that lacked critical and accurate safety information relating to the products.”21 As a direct result, the plaintiffs “suffered permanent injuries and/or were left at an elevated risk for grievous injuries and latent damages” to the brain.22 Furthermore, the plaintiffs alleged that Riddell failed to warn that the helmet would not protect players “from head trauma, repetitive head impacts, and concussions.”23 In a similar class action suit, another group of former players filed a lawsuit against Riddell.24 The putative class, which included high school and college football players who used Riddell helmets between 1975 and 2019, claimed that they suffered head injuries that could have been avoided if Riddell’s helmets lived up to their advertised effectiveness.25 Riddell “moved to strike the plaintiff’s class allegations under Rules 12(f) and 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.”26

In that suit, Riddell mainly focused on Rule 23(b)(3), which states that a class action may be “maintained if Rule 23(a) is satisfied and if . . . (3) the court finds that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.”27 The company argued that the putative class’s claims raised individualized questions of causation and damages.28 The claims, by their very nature, precluded class treatment.29 Furthermore, Riddell argued that the class action “calls for the application of eighteen different states’ laws to the class’s claims, defeating predominance and superiority.”30. Lastly, Riddell highlighted that some class members initiated individual lawsuits.31 Due to these individual lawsuits, Riddell argued that the plaintiffs could not demonstrate the superiority of class litigation.32 Judge Matthew Kennelly of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in favor of Riddell, finding that a class action would present “enormous manageability problems.”33 While Riddell beat this particular class action, which tied brain injuries to the company’s helmets, Riddell still faces similar claims from individuals.

On May 29, 2016, Cody Hamblin, a twenty-two year-old former football player, was fishing with his grandfather on a boat when he suddenly had a seizure, causing him to fall into the water and drown.34 After studying his brain, doctors determined that Hamblin suffered from CTE.35 However, the doctors could not determine if the CTE caused the seizure.36  On May 29, 2018, two years after Hamblin’s death, his father filed a suit against Riddell, presenting allegations of negligent misrepresentation, negligent product liability, fraud, and wrongful death.37. Riddell moved to dismiss the lawsuit, and on May 14, 2019, an Ohio judge ruled that five out of six of Hamblin’s claims against Riddell, including wrongful death, design defects, and manufacturing defects, could proceed to trial.38 The judge threw out the plaintiff’s claim.39 This ruling means that Riddell will have to defend itself from the allegations that the its helmets are responsible for Cody’s death.

In March 2019, Letitia Wilbourn filed a wrongful death suit against Riddell.40 In those four years, he suffered fifteen concussions and numerous blows to the head.41 On February 17, 2017, at the age of twenty-six, Myers took his own life.42 Boston University doctors confirmed that Myers suffered from CTE due to the concussions and injuries from his high school football days.43 Riddell and its parent company, BRG Sports, argued that their helmets had explicit warnings that they did not prevent concussions or brain injuries.44 Additionally, Riddell moved to dismiss the suit, claiming that the statute of limitations ended in February 2019.45 Riddell argued that “reliance on the statute of limitations not running was ‘speculative’” because Wilbourn failed to specifically point to the Illinois class action.46 Still, Judge Mark T. Pittman, a federal judge, denied Riddell’s motion to dismiss, without providing a reason for his decision.47 Like the Ohio court’s decision, this decision forces the prominent helmet manufacturer to defend itself against Wilbourn’s claims that the company’s football helmets were defective and led to the death of DuQuan Myers. It will be interesting to see how these lawsuits play out and what the effects will be on the future of player safety for both amateur and professional football players alike.

  1. The National Federation of State High School Associations, 2018–19 High School Athletics Participation Survey, [] (last visited Oct. 30, 2020).

  2. Roger Pielke, The Decline of Football is Real and it’s Accelerating, Forbes (Jan. 28, 2020, 11:24 AM), [].

  3. Yesha Callahan, Ex-NFL Players Sue Helmet Maker Riddell, Claim Company Knew About Concussion Risk, The Root (Feb. 16, 2016, 2:50 PM), [].

  4. Id.

  5. Id.

  6. Id.

  7. What is CTE?, Concussion Legal Found., [] (last visited Oct. 30, 2020).

  8. Id.

  9. Id.

  10. Callahan, supra note 3.

  11. Id.

  12. Braden Campbell, NFL Player’s Widow Wins Bid to Remand Concussion Suit, Law360 (July 20, 2016, 1:54 PM), [].

  13. Id.

  14. Id.

  15. Jonathan Bilyk, Family of NFL Player Paul Oliver Sue Riddell, Blame Equipment Maker for Oliver’s Suicide Linked to CTE, Cook County Record (Mar. 17, 2016) [].

  16. Id.

  17. Ken Belson, Paul Hornung Sues the Helmet Maker Riddell Over Concussions, NY Times (July 8, 2016), [].

  18. Former NFL Players Sue Helmet Manufacturer Riddell Inc., ESPN (July 15, 2016), [].

  19. Id.

  20. Adams v. BRG Sports, Inc., No. 17-cv-00457-BLF, 2017 WL 5598647 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 21, 2017).

  21. Plaintiff’s Response in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction at 3, Mark Adams, et al., v. BRG Sports, Inc. et al., 2017 WL 2838964 (N.D. Cal. Jun. 19, 2017) (No. 5:17-cv-00457-BLF).

  22. Adams, 2017 WL 5598647 at *2.

  23. Complaint for Damages at 1, Mark Adams, et al., v. BRG Sports, Inc., et al., 2017 WL 2838964 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 30, 2017) (No. 3:17-cv-00457).

  24. Jones v. BRG Sports, Inc., No. 18 C 7250, 2019 WL 3554374 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 1, 2019).

  25. Id. at *1.

  26. Id. at *2.

  27. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3).

  28. Jones, 2019 WL 3554374 at *4.

  29. Id.

  30. Id.

  31. Id. at *4.

  32. Id.

  33. Dan Churney, Judge Says Football Helmet Lawsuit vs Ridell Too Complex to Make a Class Action, Cook County Record (Aug. 7, 2019), [].

  34. Josh Kosman, Father Sues Football Helmet Makers Over Son’s CTE-related Death, New York Post (May 31, 2018, 5:49 PM), [].

  35. Id.

  36. Id.

  37. Id.

  38. Josh Kosman, Man Wins Right to Sue Riddell Football Helmet Company Over Son’s ‘Wrongful Death’, New York Post (May 15, 2019, 4:40 PM), [].

  39. Mark Osborne, Family’s Lawsuit Against Riddell, related to Claim Son’s Death Was Caused by Concussions, Will Go to Trial, Judge Rules, ABC News (May 17, 2019, 5:07 AM), [].

  40. Michelle Casady, Football Helmet Maker Says Ex-Player’s Suicide Suit Too Late, Law360 (June 18, 2019, 6:02 PM), [].[/foonote] Her son, DuQuan Myers, played high school football in the Dallas area from 2005 to 2009.[footnote]Id.

  41. Id.

  42. Id.; Duquan RaMon Myers, Legacy: Obituaries, [] (last visited Oct. 30, 2020).

  43. Mike Curley, Riddell Can’t Dodge High School Football Player’s Death Suit, Law360 (Jan. 17, 2020), [].

  44. Id.

  45. Michelle Casady, Football Helmet Maker Says Ex-Player’s Suicide Suit Too Late, Law360 (June 18, 2019, 6:02 PM), [].[/foonote] However, Wilbourn argued that the statute of limitations had tolled since Myers was a putative class member in an Illinois class action lawsuit with similar claims against BRG Sports.[footnote]Mike Curley, Riddell Can’t Dodge High School Football Player’s Death Suit, Law360 (Jan. 17, 2020, 1:52 PM), [].

  46. Id.

  47. Id.

Annika Kapur

Annika Kapur is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. She is also a member of the Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy team. She holds a B.F.A in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch School of Arts.