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Helmet Maker’s Big Headache Is Not Going Away Anytime Soon

By Joshua Salmon

Chances are high that if you ever played football at any level, you have worn a football helmet designed and manufactured by industry giant Riddell.  University of Notre Dame and Green Bay Packers’ legend Paul Hornung played a bit more football than most of us and now faces the grim realities of the collisions he incurred while wearing those Riddell helmets throughout his illustrious career.  Hornung owns a Heisman Trophy, has been admitted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and was long known as “The Golden Boy,” but these days, after being diagnosed with dementia,[1] he likely struggles to remember those accolades.  Daily tasks have become more difficult for Hornung than running through an empty gap created by his favorite linemen, Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg, used to be.  Hornung’s Complaint alleges that Riddell has long known about the potential for long term brain damage from concussive hits, even while wearing Riddell’s hardened plastic helmets, but failed to warn the players, who were out on the field confidently taking hits and using the crests of their heads as battering rams (cue Earl Campbell), about what might be happening to their cerebellums inside of the presumably protective shells.[2]

Hornung is not the first, and likely will not be the last, to seek compensation from the league he dedicated his life to and/or its equipment manufacturers.  In 2011, individual former players began to file lawsuits against the NFL generally alleging that they had become husks of their former selves due to the punishment their cerebral matter sustained playing professional football without warning from the NFL, doctors, equipment makers, or anyone else.[3]  Worse yet, they contended that the NFL knew about the risks, but was more concerned with the money coming in than the lives and safety of the players who were responsible for growing the NFL’s hefty wallet.  The players’ claims became far more disturbing when prominent former players, like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, were found dead by their own hand after suspected bouts with dementia and other CTE related problems.[4]  This culminated with a massive class action lawsuit against the NFL and Riddell by thousands of former players, families, and estates (see nflconcussionlitigation.com for the full text of 242 Complaints filed by former players against the NFL).  That lawsuit terminated in April of 2015 with a settlement of upwards $765 million going to the class plaintiffs.[5]  Unfortunately, not all of the plaintiffs were satisfied with the deal and the terms of the settlement were appealed to the Third District Court of Appeals.  The 3rd DCA upheld the settlement in April of 2016, theoretically ending the concussion litigation.[6]  However, before the settlement deadline, about 200 players opted out of the settlement.[7]

With Hornung now leading a new power sweep of concussion related lawsuits, Riddell is likely starting to feel a bit like Phillip Morris.  Riddell has been here before, with mixed results.  The helmet maker has been sued for both failure to warn and design defects of its helmets.  The design defects angle has thus far proven to be a loser for plaintiffs after Riddell’s successful defense of the claim following suit by a Los Angeles area high school player who suffered extreme brain damage from a particularly destructive hit.[8]  Frankly, it’s difficult to foresee a path to victory for plaintiffs on that angle until a helmet manufacturer designs and produces a device that adequately protects the human brain from the trauma that ensues when a couple of fellows with the mass, speed, and temperament of Lawrence Taylor and Jim Brown bang heads like bighorn sheep.  Creating such an apparatus is presently the white whale of the sports equipment world, and many seem to doubt whether such a thing is even possible because brain trauma is the result of gelatinous brain substance actually shifting within the skull, and not just the outside impact we see and hear.  Indeed, a biomechanics firm hired by the NFL in the early 2000s issued a report explicating that no helmet, no matter how revolutionary, can totally prevent concussions.[9] On that note, Riddell has been successfully sued for failure to warn.  Riddell’s most popular and famous cranial shelter is named the “Revolution Helmet.”  Riddell marketed that particular helmet as the best in the industry and proven to protect against concussions.[10]  As has likely become obvious by now, numerous plaintiffs allege that those claims were at best, slightly exaggerated, and at worst, complete fabrications.  Consequently, in a 2013 Colorado case, a jury awarded a plaintiff, who became debilitated following a life-altering impact in a high school football game while wearing the Riddell Revolution, $3.1 million from Riddell’s pocketbook because Riddell had failed to warn the player of the substantial concussion risks he faced even while wearing their product.[11]  Nonetheless, the jury still cleared Riddell of the charge that its helmet had design flaws.

Going forward, failure to warn claims look to be the figurative crack in Riddell’s litigation helmet.  Thus far, plaintiffs and their attorneys have been tackled well before the goal line when they try to carry the design defect claim out of the backfield; but the failure to warn playbook may be just what plaintiffs like Paul Hornung need to score one last touchdown against an otherwise well-equipped opponent.

 

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/07/sports/football/document-Hornung-v-Riddell-Filestamped-Complaint.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/07/sports/football/document-Hornung-v-Riddell-Filestamped-Complaint.html?_r=0

[3] http://nflconcussionlitigation.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Master_Administrative_Long_Form_Complaint.pdf

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/sports/football/junior-seau-suffered-from-brain-disease.html?_r=0

[5] http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/22/us/nfl-concussion-lawsuit-settlement/

[6] http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/ct-nfl-concussion-lawsuit-upheld-20160418-story.html

[7] http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11816858/more-200-former-players-opt-nfl-concussion-settlement

[8] http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Riddell-Helmet-Lawsuit-Acuna-Football-Player-Injuries-251400581.html

[9] http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/9228260/report-warned-riddell-no-helmet-prevent-concussions-nfl-helmet-maker-marketed-one-such-anyway

[10] http://news.riddell.com/info/releases/research-shows-riddell-revolution-football-helmet-provides-better-protection-against-concussions

[11] http://www.cbssports.com/collegefootball/story/22072226/colo-jury-finds-riddell-negligent-in-helmet-suit

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