Crowded Courtroom for N.F.L. Lawsuit
Crowded Courtroom for N.F.L. Lawsuit
by KEN BELSON and JON HURDLE Published: April 9, 2013
PHILADELPHIA — The two legal teams, the one for the N.F.L. and the one for the retired players suing the league for negligence and fraud, were stacked with top talent, including litigators who have argued in front of the Supreme Court.
But in a twist, the N.F.L., the $9 billion league that often gets its way, appeared to have a tougher time of it on Tuesday.
In United States District Court here, the league had five lawyers who argued that the case should be dismissed because the players had agreed to a collective bargaining agreement and therefore an arbitrator, not a judge, should hear their cases.
On the other side of the aisle, packed into a steamy courtroom and an overflowing gallery, were dozens of lawyers representing more than 4,000 former players and their wives who claim that the league knew about the long-term dangers of head trauma but hid them.
The judge who heard the N.F.L.’s request, Anita B. Brody, quickly tried to put the two sides at ease.
“Please take off your ties and jackets,” she told those in the courtroom on a warm day. “I don’t want anyone fainting.”
Brody could throw out the entire case, or let parts of it proceed, though appeals are likely to slow the pace. Even without appeals, the discovery process could take years. The judge could also ask the plaintiffs to pick several cases to be tried as tests.
In the fast-moving, 45-minute hearing, Brody gave no strong hint how she would rule, although she repeatedly prodded Paul Clement, the N.F.L.’s lawyer, to provide specific reasons the league’s motion should be granted.
At one point Clement admitted that the league’s argument that player safety was governed by labor contracts would be harder to make for players who never signed a collective bargaining agreement.
“No question about that,” the judge said.
Brody, who said her grandson played football, kept Clement and David Frederick, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, on their toes. She acknowledged that the N.F.L. had set up a fund to help retired players deal with their injuries, but she wondered, too, about the years before it was established.
Frederick argued that his clients’ case should be heard in court because of the fraud accusation, and fraud would supersede any labor agreement, a point the judge did not challenge. But questions asked, or not asked, by judges are not always indications of their final decisions.
The jousting spilled into the streets after the hearing. In a plaza next to the courthouse, Clement repeated that injuries to N.F.L. players were covered by collective bargaining agreements, so the league should not be subject to a lawsuit.
Asked to respond to the plaintiffs’ charge that the N.F.L. had glorified violence and profited from it, Clement said: “The collective bargaining agreements address player safety. Nothing in this collective bargaining agreement speaks to the marketing of violence.”
At a news conference in the basement of a hotel near the courthouse, plaintiffs, their relatives and their lead lawyer again accused the league of negligence and indifference to the players’ injuries.
“What they were doing there when they brought us so much pleasure, they were also suffering insidious injuries,” said Frederick, who was flanked by several plaintiffs.
He accused the N.F.L. of failing to recognize or act on the signs that some players were sustaining head injuries that would lead to long-term damage.
“The league knew or should have known that these repeated blows to the head caused significant neurological injury,” Frederick said.
One of the injured players was Kevin Turner, 43, a former fullback for the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles who now has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. He said he felt that the hearing brought the case one step closer to a resolution.
“I am very glad that we are at last moving forward with this, and hope that it won’t drag and drag,” Turner told reporters in slurred and halting speech. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of us that don’t have 10 years to find out what the decision is.”
Turner, whose condition was diagnosed in 2010, said he had no doubt his brain injury was caused by blows to the head received while playing in the N.F.L.
He said the league had denied any connection between his illness and his playing career as recently as 2007. “The N.F.L. was acting like we were idiots, that there was no correlation,” he said.
Mary Ann Easterling, the widow of Ray Easterling, a former Atlanta Falcons player who had dementia and committed suicide, wept as she spoke but said she felt optimistic about the case after Tuesday’s hearing.
“I was really pleased with the judge’s questions and her treatment of the subject,” Easterling said.
Lisa McHale, the widow of Tom McHale, who was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy after he died in May 2008, accused the N.F.L. of being indifferent to the suffering of players like her husband.
“I don’t want to believe that they could have been so callous,” she said.