The trial in Gee v NCAA over the potential wrongful death of former University of South California football player Matt Gee came to a close, and the jury sided with the NCAA, finding that the NCAA was not liable in any way for the death of Gee. After about a month, Gee’s counsel was not able to convince the jurors that the NCAA was responsible for Gee’s death.
To recap, Gee’s counsel argued that the NCAA knew of the dangers of brain injuries and did nothing to prevent it or to inform the players, which led to Gee getting CTE, which then led to Gee developing substance abuse issues, ultimately contributing to his death. There was testimony from the plaintiffs demonstrating how the NCAA acknowledged and wrote about brain injuries, and other testimony about the careless nature evinced regarding brain injuries at USC and in the NCAA as a whole.
The NCAA’s successful defense consisted of pointing to the true cause of his death, which an autopsy determined was a combination of drug use, cardio vascular disease, liver problems, and obesity. Gee’s counsel argued that CTE caused these problems, making CTE an indirect cause of death. The jury ultimately decided that the direct cause of death was too much to overcome, and it could not find that the NCAA had any relation to the direct cause of death, hence their finding in favor of the NCAA.
The Jury Agrees With The NCAA
The jury had two main questions it had to answer: first, whether the NCAA unreasonably increased the risk to Gee, and second, whether the NCAA unreasonably minimized the risk to Gee, the NCAA was able to convince the jury that neither of these things were true.
After the NCAA settled its only prior case on the issue, Gee’s case was the first to reach a jury regarding the NCAA’s potential responsibility for head injuries. The NCAA must have had been confident in its case to allow the jury to weigh in and set the precedent on something that could open the floodgates for the NCAA. After the verdict, Scott Bearby, the NCAA’s Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs and General Counsel, said “The NCAA bore no responsibility for Mr. Gee’s tragic death, and furthermore, the case was not supported by medical science linking Mr. Gee’s death to his college football career. We express our deepest sympathies to Mr. Gee’s family.”
The NCAA believes that this vindicates its position that there is no medical consensus on the cause of CTE, stating “[W]e feel like this verdict is a vindication of the position we’ve taken in all these cases, which is the science and medicine in Matthew Gee’s circumstance did not support causation.”
The New Precedent
While it was brave to take the NCAA to trial, Gee’s side had an uphill battle from the start. Gabe Feldman, a sports law professor, discussed this challenge, saying that proving Gee died from an “invisible” disease caused by the NCAA is much less plausible than saying he died from the multiple health factors that his autopsy revealed.
After this verdict, the precedent is that the NCAA does not have culpability in CTE related deaths. The NCAA echoed this sentiment in its statement: ” [We] will continue to aggressively defend against cases like this that wrongly try to exploit the legal system to unfairly target the NCAA.”
However, this does not mean that no plaintiff can succeed in a case like this against the NCAA. The facts in Gee’s case are unique in that he had documented causes of death that were not CTE, so to prove that it was CTE was an uphill battle for the plaintiff. However, if this was a different case where the cause of death was not due to substance abuse or something similar, then the plaintiff could have a better argument.
A Roadmap For Future Cases
The issue with this is that the NCAA has been very strategic in how it approaches these cases. Based on history, it will settle the case unless it is a slam dunk winner; that way there is no controlling precedent handed down by a court on the issue. It is going to take a compelling case with a party that is unwilling to settle to overcome this precedent. Sports Law attorney, Dan Lust, discusses the potential ramifications stating that, “Any plaintiff’s attorney is going to think twice before putting all the chips in the table and pushing them to the middle, saying, ‘We’re going to take our case to trial and see what happens,’ You’re going to be much less inclined to take that risk from a cost-benefit perspective.”
While this may have been a defeat for Gee, it will help potentially show the roadmap to having a successful cause of action against the NCAA in this type of case. It seems that the only kind of case that can be successful is one where the NCAA is directly related to the causation of the death, not just indirectly related. By no means does this outcome mean that the NCAA will not be found liable in a similar case in the future; it just makes the battle a little harder.
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