Jury: NCAA not to blame in ex-USC football player’s death
LOS ANGELES — In a verdict that could affect countless claims by athletes who sue sports organizations for head injuries, a Los Angeles jury on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit seeking $55 million by the widow of a former USC football player who said the NCAA failed to protect him from repeated head trauma that led to his death.
Matthew Gee, a linebacker on the 1990 Rose Bowl-winning squad, endured an estimated 6,000 hits as a college athlete, lawyers for his widow said. They alleged these impacts caused permanent brain damage, and led to cocaine and alcohol abuse that eventually killed him at age 49. The NCAA, the governing body for U.S. college athletics, claimed that Gee’s death was unrelated to its treatment of hypertension and acute cocaine toxicity. A lawyer for the NCAA said Gee suffered from many other health problems not related to football, such as liver cirrhosis, that would have eventually killed him.
Hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits have been brought by college football players against the NCAA in the past decade, but Gee’s was the first one to reach a jury. The suit claimed that head hits caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE), a degenerative brain condition.
Judge Terry Green stated to jurors at Los Angeles Superior Court that they had “made history” with the first case of this type.
The result could be a warning to lawyers who are preparing to bring similar cases to trial. Dan Lust, a sports lawyer and professor at New York Law School, said that the result could serve to caution lawyers. He had stated that a Gee win could have opened the floodgates for the NCAA before the trial. The NCAA now has more leverage in future cases.
” Any plaintiff’s lawyer will think twice before pushing all the chips to the table and saying, “We’re going take our case to court and see what happens,” Lust stated. “You’re going to be much less inclined to take that risk from a cost-benefit perspective.”
Alana Gee choked up as the verdict was read and had tears in her eyes afterward. She admitted to one of her lawyers that she did not understand how the jury reached that decision but thanked seven women and five men as they left the courtroom. Afterward, she declined to comment.
” We feel deep sympathy for Matthew Gee’s family right away,” Will Stute, an NCAA attorney, said afterwards. “But we 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.”
Stute had argued that medical evidence is not clear on what causes CTE, and what the impacts are from that disease.
Attorneys for Gee said CTE, which is found in athletes and military veterans who suffered repetitive brain injuries, was an indirect cause of death because head trauma has been shown to promote substance abuse.
Alana Gee had testified that the college sweethearts had 20 good years of marriage before her husband’s mental health began to deteriorate and he became angry, depressed and impulsive, and began overeating and abusing drugs and alcohol.
The NCAA said the case hinged on what it knew at the time Gee played, from 1988-92, and not about CTE, which was first discovered in the brain of a deceased NFL player in 2005.
Gee did not report a concussion, and stated in an application to the Raiders that he had never been unconscious.
“You can’t hold the NCAA responsible for something 40 years later that nobody ever reported,” Stute said in his closing argument. “The plaintiffs want to see you in a time travel device. We don’t have one at the NCAA. It’s not fair.”
Attorneys for Gee’s family said there was no doubt that Matt Gee suffered concussions and countless sub-concussive blows.
A teammate who went on the NFL playing in the NFL testified that Gee, who was the team captain in his senior year, was once so shaken from a hit that it made it impossible for him to call the next play.
Gee was one of five linebackers on the 1989 Trojans squad who died before turning 50. All showed signs of mental deterioration due to head trauma.
As was his NFL star teammate, Junior Seau, Junior’s brain was posthumously examined at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Ecephalopathy Center. CTE was found.
Jurors weren’t allowed to hear testimony from Gee’s former teammates.
Alana Gee’s lawyers had argued that the NCAA, which was founded in 1906 for athlete safety, had known about impacts from head injuries since the 1930s but failed to educate players, ban headfirst contact, or implement baseline testing for concussion symptoms.
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