Lawsuits filed by NHL players for chronic brain damage from repetitive traumatic brain injuries, have been classified as a multi-district litigation case (“MDL”) against the National Hockey League for damages resulting from concussions sustained by NHL players. Similar to the claims recently made by NFL players, the litigation against the league claims that the NHL knew, or should have known, that regular head strikes were likely to expose players to a substantial risk of brain injuries and diseases, but that the league failed to warn or protect players from permanent brain injuries.
Several retired NHL players suffer from the effects of repetitive traumatic brain injuries, which have resulted in life changing brain injury symptoms. Traumatic brain injuries have been linked to neurological degenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and Parkinson’s Disease. Repetitive concussions have also been conclusively linked to a degenerative brain disorder known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE.”) [CTE cannot be confirmed until death, however, in recent autopsy studies, 95.6% of deceased NFL players had CTE, leading to widespread concerns about the well being of athletes sustaining repeated blows to the he
ad.] Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in athletes is the topic of the recent film “Concussion” starring Will Smith.
Similar to the NHL, the National Football League initially denied any links between repetitive head strikes and CTE, by publishing a series of papers denying any link between football and brain damage, while at the same time quietly paying retired players who were disabled by brain injuries. The NFL went so far as creating a “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee” who wrote that no NFL player had ever suffered long term brain damage, or other neurological and psychological consequences, as a result of repetitive concussions. “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis,” the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee wrote in one 2005 paper. [It comes as little surprise that some of the doctors who sat on the NFL injury validity committee are the same doctors that work for insurers and defense lawyers in denying traumatic brain injuries in personal injury claims. They get paid to deny traumatic brain injuries for a living.]
Players sustaining head injuries in the NHL are reporting similar head injury symptoms to the NFL players, including headaches, mood swings, uncontrollable temper, sensitivity to light, seizures, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Former NHL players claim they would have never played in the league had they known of the risk of permanent cognitive, behavioral and psychological changes caused by repetitive head injuries.
Presently over 115 hockey players are now part of the multi-district litigation against the NHL, seeking damages for the “pathological and debilitating effects of brain injuries caused by concussive and sub-concussive impacts sustained…during their professional careers.” A recent complaint alleges that the NHL’s failure to warn players of TBI risks constitutes fraudulent concealment because the National Hockey League had specialized knowledge of material medical information. Lawyers representing the NHL players assert that there has been extensive literature and research available on the subject, including four international symposia that included medical reports specific to hockey, as well as several conferences in the U.S. focusing on traumatic brain injuries in professional hockey. The NHL players with a history of brain injury contend there is little chance that the NHL was unaware of the long-term consequences of repeated mild traumatic brain injuries. By withholding that information, the former NHL players claim they relied upon the NHL’s omissions and misrepresentations regarding the degree of risk associated with playing hockey in the NHL. The former players allege that the NHL suppressed evidence of the risks of repetitive concussions, and fostered an unreasonable and unnecessarily violent league. The players contend that the NHL fostered a culture of violent conduct in order to increase its profits from ticket sales and merchandising on players and teams known to engage in such conduct, even though that violent conduct resulted in an increased risk of concussions for NHL players.
One of the National Hockey League’s defenses in the litigation is that players could have independently spent their time reading medical research and reports to figure out for themselves that repeated head trauma can lead to Alzheimers and other neurological degenerative conditions following repeated concussions. This fails to acknowledge that the NHL was in the best position to collect information on professional hockey and its players, and study the effect of concussions on retired NHL players. Contrary to the NHL’s position, the former players maintain that they “had no familiarity with or reason to access any medical literature concerning concussions, or other sub-concussive impacts.” Instead the professional athletes state that they relied on their professional sports league for information about known risks of playing the sport, and that they were never informed of the negative long-term effects of sustaining concussions that the NHL already knew existed.
In 2011, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an analysis of head injury risk in NHL players, which evaluated traumatic brain injuries over the course of several regular hockey seasons. The study found 559 concussions during regular season games - equal to 1.8 concussions per 1,000 player hours. The most common symptoms of repeated traumatic brain injury found in the study were; dizziness, nausea, neck pain, headache, blurred vision, amnesia, and loss of consciousness. These symptoms have traditionally been diagnosed as “post concussion syndrome” by doctors, but are now more commonly referred to as the consequences of a “mild traumatic brain injury.” More serious symptoms included mental and/or physical fatigue and memory loss, which are also common symptoms of a mild traumatic brain injury - no frank bleed is required to cause these symptoms and in only 20% of cases can anything be seen on an MRI or CT after a traumatic brain injury. These repetitive head injuries can, but do not always result in abnormal neurologic exams. (All of these are also common symptoms for a person sustaining a one time mild traumatic brain injury in other traumatic injuries such as a motor vehicle collision. In fact, our office has experience dealing with one-time TBIs which have substantially more brain injury symptoms.)
On August 19, 2014, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation determined that the NHL concussion injury cases involved common “questions of fact” and that centralization of the cases in the District of Minnesota was appropriate. All similar cases by former NHL players against the NHL were transferred to the District of Minnesota and assigned to the Honorable Susan Richard Nelson for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings. Any subsequent similar case filed in federal court anywhere in the United States will be transferred to the District of Minnesota.
In January 2016, the judge presiding over the brain injury MDL suit demanded the unsealing of emails between NHL executives. The communications are allegedly evidence of their indifference towards player concussions, and relevant to the plaintiffs’ theory that the NHL did not appropriately consider the health of it’s players.
While the NHL denies the allegations (just as the NFL did), the negative publicity surrounding the case and the outcome of the NFL settlements, may steer them away from trial and towards a more favorable settlement for players.
If you are a former NHL player, (or a former NFL player) with a cognitive, behavioral, or psychological injuries that are impacting you, and if you wish to make a legal claim, please contact our office for a free consultation at (503) 227-1233.