Retired athletes from South Florida are trying to make the National Football League recognize a traumatic brain disease — linked to repeated head injuries — as an occupational hazard that would be covered by workers’ compensation.
Lawyers for the former NFL players filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale against the league and NFL teams, including the Miami Dolphins, on behalf of more than 140 retired players who may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE.
The complaint is an attempt to help out thousands of affected players who would not qualify for financial help under the terms of an existing proposed $1 billion settlement for other brain conditions, which is currently under appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Tim Howard, the lead attorney who filed the new lawsuit.
He estimated the lawsuit, filed on behalf of living former players, could potentially apply to most of the 19,000 retired NFL players in the U.S. If the plaintiffs succeed, they could qualify for 500 weeks of pay that would amount to millions of dollars each, Howard said.
Recent developments in medical research allow CTE to be diagnosed in live patients, Howard said at an afternoon press conference outside the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Previously, it could only be confirmed after death, he said.
“The workers’ compensation relief plaintiffs are seeking will be based upon their claims that they have now become permanently and totally disabled by CTE as a result of repeated traumatic head injuries that were, in fact, sustained while they acted in the capacity of employees for the defendant,” according to the lawsuit.
“The intentional delay in diagnosis and treatment of living CTE and repeated head trauma causes avoidable injury and death,” said Howard. “Justice requires that the NFL be held accountable for this occupational hazard.”
The NFL did not respond to requests for comment. The league has several weeks to file a formal response in court. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom.
The lawsuit was filed in Fort Lauderdale because a significant number of the former players live in South Florida, Howard said.
Retired NFL wide receiver Tony Gaiter, 42, of Sunrise, the lead plaintiff in the case, told reporters Monday that he has been diagnosed with CTE. Gaiter, who played for the University of Miami before signing with the Patriots and the Chargers, said he is unable to work and had nowhere to live just six months ago.
“I’m depressed more than anything,” Gaiter said at the press conference. “I’m just getting by, man.”
Family and friends noticed he was having memory problems, becoming forgetful and needing a list when he went to get groceries, he said. He and his former colleagues worry about what the future holds for them, he said.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make it home in a few years,” Gaiter said.
Gaiter said he thinks the NFL officials “live for the moment. When it’s over [for you as a player], they don’t care about the past.”
An appeal is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a 2013 proposed settlement in the related NFL concussion case. The potential $1 billion settlement, which was approved in federal court in Philadelphia, is on hold until the appeal is decided.
Critics of that settlement question why more money would be awarded for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, than for other conditions, including CTE. Lawyers who favor the 2013 settlement negotiated on behalf of 21,000 NFL retirees. The average payouts would be close to $190,000, The Associated Press reported.