Attorneys representing the sister of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, have refiled a lawsuit claiming the NFL and helmet manufacturer Riddell withheld data about potential head injuries associated with playing football.
The suit alleges that Hernandez, who committed suicide in April, suffered repeated head injuries while playing football, which caused behavioral changes.
Hernandez was only one of numerous NFL players involved in legal action over head injuries, but his case is exceptional.
Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for a double murder in 2012. In 2015, he was found hanging in his cell, in what was ruled a suicide, shortly after being acquitted.
An autopsy showed the former New England Patriots tight end suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CET) which is caused by repeated concussions and which can lead to violent behavior, depression, seizures, and death.
The new lawsuit claims the NFL systematically suppressed data showing that repeated concussions caused permanent brain damage. The implication appears to be that Hernandez might have chosen a different career had he known.
The Hernandez legal team recently canceled a similar Federal Court lawsuit that also named the New England Patriots as defendants. The attorneys said they felt the case would get a better hearing in state court.
The lawsuit against the Patriots will be refiled later, the legal team reported.
The new suit, filed by attorney George Leontire, says in part that “Aaron experienced a chaotic and horrendous existence in many respects, due to his undiagnosed brain injury.”
NFL Admits Football Causes Brain Damage
The NFL has been embroiled in legal action concerning concussions for more than two decades.
The league first formed a commission in 1994 to study whether football caused long-term brain injuries or disease. This commission collected data from between 1996 and 2001, analyzed it, and concluded that there was no link between football and CET or other brain disorders.
Subsequent reporting by the New York Times revealed that the league had cherry-picked the data, and that the league’s own report indicated the link.
The NFL denied any link between brain damage and football until 2016—despite reaching a billion-dollar class-action settlement with players in 2013. This settlement package will cover some 20,000 retired or retiring NFL players through the next 65 years, paying out fixed sums for certain psychological and medical conditions proven to be associated with CET.
The lawsuit froze any claims made against the league after 2015, saying that players had had enough time to register as part of the class-action settlement.
The settlement absolves the NFL of all responsibility in the matter. The league, by signing the settlement, did not admit that it knew of any link or had distorted any data.
In 2016, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, admitted in a Congressional Hearing that there was a definite link between football and degenerative brain disorders such as CTE.
His admission did not implicate the league, as it did not identify when the NFL knew of the connection. However in 2009, NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello told the New York Times that the connection is “quite obvious from the medical research.”
Hernandez Suit Sidesteps League Settlement
The Hernandez lawsuit, brought on behalf of Aaron Hernandez’s five-year-old daughter, Avielle, claims that the NFL and helmet manufacturer Riddell “deprived her of the companionship and society of her father … during his lifetime.”
The suit also states that the NFL and Riddell propagated “false science” and deliberately refused to “to actually seek to reduce injury risks in football through good-faith science.”
Hernandez played for the New England Patriots from 2010 through 2014. Based on his excellent performance in his first two years, he was offered and signed a five-year contract extension in 2012 worth $40 million, the second-largest in league history.
By suing the league independently, the Hernandez family stands to gain a huge settlement, much more than they would through the class-action settlement. Lawyers could claim potential earnings far greater than the few million dollars the settlement would offer.
Any hopes that the League might settle out of court to avoid bad publicity have been dashed. NFL spokesperson Joe Lockhart said that the NFL would fight “vigorously” and that the Hernandez family faced “significant legal issues.”
The family could still sign on to the class-action settlement, despite the settlement being officially closed. To do so, however, they would have to give up any current or future lawsuits.
Troubled and Troubling History
One of the difficulties the Hernandez legal team faces is demonstrating that Hernandez’s behavior changed radically after he started playing for the NFL.
Hernandez had had legal troubles before joining the NFL. In 2007, at age 17, he was involved in a bar fight and punched an employee hard enough to rupture the employee’s eardrum. The case was settled out of court.
Later in 2007 Hernandez was implicated in an incident where a large Hispanic man fired a gun at a car, wounding two passengers. Hernandez was not charged.
The Patriots tight end was involved in another shooting case in June of 2013. This case was also settled out of court.
Also in June of 2013, Hernandez was arrested in connection with the murder of one of his friends, Odin Lloyd. In 2015 he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Hernandez was found hanging in his cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts ion April 19, 2017. His death was ruled a suicide. He was 27 years old.