Court Upholds Football Players’ $1 Billion Settlement with NFL

By Stefanie M. Renaud May 4, 2016
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A nearly $1 billion settlement between the National Football League (NFL) and over 20,000 retired football players was upheld as imperfect but fair by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The settlement resolved a large class-action lawsuit brought by retired NFL players against the league. The players alleged that the NFL knew about the increased risk of brain injuries as a result of playing football but did not inform or protect players. In a class-action lawsuit, a large number of people with the same legal problem--the class members--are represented by one or more members of the class--the named plaintiffs. A court must approve a class-action settlement before it is finalized.

In 2011, 73 former players filed a complaint in California in which they alleged that the NFL did not take reasonable actions to protect players from the risk of head injuries. Subsequently, over 300 similar suits were filed across the country. The NFL requested that all the cases be consolidated, and the consolidated case was heard before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

A settlement was reached in August 2013 after months of negotiations and mediation between the parties. At first, the court was not satisfied with the settlement and requested two changes, which the parties agreed to. The settlement was preliminarily approved in April 2015. However, the federal rules applicable to class actions allow class members to object to the settlement before it is finalized by the court. Here, the objectors argued that the terms of the settlement were too restrictive and would not provide relief to former players who develop neurological problems such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma. Several objectors appealed the approval of the settlement to the court of appeals.

The appeals court concluded that the lower court had properly certified the class and properly approved the settlement. The court reasoned that the class had been properly certified because the class met the four required factors: numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequate representation. The court also concluded that the legal issue in common among the group was both predominant and would be best resolved in a class-action suit. Finally, the court concluded that the lower court properly approved the settlement, which will “provide significant and immediate relief to retired players living with the lasting scars of a NFL career,” because, while imperfect, the settlement was fair, reasonable and accurate. 

Under the approved settlement, a player can be awarded up to $5 million, depending on the severity of the neurological issues, age when diagnosed and number of years played in the NFL. A player diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease can be awarded up to $5 million, while players with Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease are eligible for an award of up to $3.5 million.

In re Nat'l Football League Players Concussion Injury Litig., No. 15-2206 (3d Cir. April 18, 2016).

Professional Pointer: Employers that are aware of workplace hazards to employee health and well-being should inform employees of those risks and endeavor to protect employees from an unreasonable amount of danger. Failure to do so can result in a class-action lawsuit, where affected employees, current or former, can sue for harms caused by undisclosed workplace risks.

Stefanie M. Renaud, is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser P.C., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Springfield, Mass. 

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