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Torts Illustrated Presents: Sports Injuries on the Rise

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The Poppe Law Firm conducted its office “fantasy football” draft last week, with each member of the Poppe Team vying for this year’s fantasy championship by choosing which NFL players will perform best on the actual field this season. The office’s league name is titled “Torts Illustrated”—a pun combining the legal jargon “tort” with the formerly prominent “Sports Illustrated” magazine.  The NFL’s first week was exciting—and unfortunately filled with injuries.

NFL fans and players collectively sighed this past Monday night when starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a torn Achilles tendon after only four plays in his New York Jets debut against the Buffalo Bills. He will miss the remainder of this season, and this may be the last game of his storied NFL career.

Unfortunately, sports injuries are common, and on the rise. After a decline in sports related injuries due to COVID-19 related lockdowns, emergency departments in 2021 and 2022 saw an influx of people arriving with injuries involving sports and recreational equipment. Young athletes must be especially wary—as youth sports injuries grow due to a trend towards sports specialization—in which middle and high school athletes focus intensely on one sport. The primary factor driving this trend is the pursuit of sports scholarships and professional contracts, with many coaches, parents, and kids believing that in order to become a superior athlete they must play one sport intensely from an early age. For kids, the pressure and year-round focus leads to burnout, and a higher rate of injuries.

Sports-related injuries occur for a variety of reasons and in a variety of contexts. In the case of contact sports such as football, the sport itself is just more dangerous—as evidenced by our growing knowledge of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).Sometimes, however, the playing surface or sports equipment is the issue.

In the NFL, a growing chorus of players are asking for artificial turf fields to be replaced with natural grass. The NFLPA (NFL Players’ Association) has cited data showing natural grass is a “significantly safer surface than turf.” During the 2022 Super Bowl, star Odell Beckham Jr. tore his ACL on the artificial turf at SoFi stadium in Los Angeles. After Beckham’s injury, many NFL players launched a Change.org petition calling for the NFL to ban turf and require a natural grass playing field in all stadiums. After the recent injury to Aaron Rodgers, his teammates on the Jets specifically placed part of the blame on the artificial turf at MetLife Stadium. After another injury to a star player, the controversy over artificial turf is only going to increase.

Poor playing conditions have led to lawsuits. In 2016 a former player NFL player DeMeco Ryans (now the head coach of the Houston Texans), sued the NFL, the Texans, the stadium management company, and the field’s turf manufacturer over a torn Achilles tendon “that prematurely ended” his career. That suit ended in a settlement. Part of the reason more NFL players have not brought lawsuits over the artificial turf is that courts have ruled the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL players and the team owners requires players’ claims to be heard in arbitration, rather than being allowed to go to court and heard by a jury. The problem of “arbitration clauses” has been highlighted previously in the Poppe Law Firm blog.

In 2022, Denver Broncos player Aaron Patrick sued numerous organizations upon tearing his ACL after getting his cleat stuck in an artificial matring placed near the playing field which covered the cables running to the league’s replay monitor. This suit plans on challenging the arbitration clause in the CBA, and hopefully a court ruling will pave the way for other players to pursue claims in court, outside of arbitration.

On the horseracing side, a jockey sued a West Virginia race track after he was paralyzed from the chest down during a racing accident in 2004 due to a poorly maintained racing surface. The suit settled for a confidential amount.

Faulty or deceptive equipment has also led to lawsuits. In 2006, a 12-year-old suffered brain damage after being struck by a line drive off an aluminum baseball bat. A lawsuit was brought against the bat manufacturer, Sports Authority, and Little League baseball in 2008, alleging the length to weight ratio of the bat allowed for an unreasonably dangerous exit velocity of the ball. In 2012, that suit settled for $14.5 million.

In 2013, a Colorado jury found the helmet manufacturer Riddell was negligent in failing to warn its helmet wearers about concussion dangers, even though industry insiders were compiling mounting evidence of the danger of head trauma in football. The jury awarded $11.5 million. In 2014 a class action lawsuit was brought on behalf of youth football players against Riddell, arguing that the company falsely advertised its helmets when it claimed the product reduced the risk of concussions without any scientific evidence to support such claims. In 2016 a group of former NFL players also filed suit against Riddell for failing to warn them of the long-term health risks the helmets would not protect them from. In 2020, a former junior hockey player sued the equipment company HockeyTron after his helmet visor shattered on his face after being struck by a puck, despite the manufacturer’s claims that the visor was strong enough to withstand puck and stick hits.

The Poppe Law Firm encourages everyone to enjoy sports and recreational activities safely. Although injuries do happen, sometimes it is through no fault of the athlete. The Poppe Law Firm has previously represented jockeys for injuries sustained due negligently maintained racing surfaces, and a young athlete with a heart defect whose family doctor nevertheless negligently cleared to play college soccer. If you or a loved one sustains a sports injury due to the negligence of another, whether faulty equipment, negligent medical care, or a poorly maintained playing surface, please contact us.

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