Five former Kansas City Chiefs players who were on the team between 1987 and 1993 filed a lawsuit Tuesday claiming the team hid and even lied about the risks of head injuries during that time period when there was no collective bargaining agreement in place in the NFL.
The lawsuit was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court on behalf of former players Leonard Griffin, Chris Martin, Joe Phillips, Alexander Louis Cooper and Kevin Porter, all of whom played on defense. It seeks more than $15,000 in actual and punitive damages. All five players have opted out of a multimillion-dollar settlement announced this summer that would compensate former players for their head injuries.
The Kansas City plaintiffs claim to be suffering from post-concussion syndrome and latent brain disease because of multiple concussions they sustained while playing for the Chiefs. They all claim also to be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can only be definitively diagnosed by examining the brain after death.
The lawsuit claims the Chiefs knew the risks involved in concussions, but didn't take the proper care of players in order to drive up their profits.
Martin, a Kansas City resident who played linebacker for the Chiefs from 1988 to 1993, said at a news conference he didn't know that continuing to play in games after sustaining a head injury would cause permanent damage.
"I would have liked to have the opportunity to know that going back on the field would cause me to have severe disabilities later in life," he said. "I didn't know that. That's what the lawsuit is about. Us having that opportunity."
Martin, who played linebacker, said he loved his time in the NFL. He said he remembers suffering several concussions, and was sent back on the field after just getting smelling salts.
Chiefs spokesman Ted Crews and NFL spokesman Greg Aiello both declined to comment on the suit.
The NFL is not named in the lawsuit. Missouri law allows the former players to sue the Chiefs.
Plaintiffs' attorney Ken McClain called the proposed $765 million settlement between the NFL and former players insignificant and said it provides compensation only to the former players with the most severe brain injuries and dementia.
None of the five plaintiffs will get monetary compensation under that deal, he said. He said players who can still function get nothing through the NFL settlement to help their injuries and recovery, he said.
"All they're going to be is monitored over time, but no relief will be offered to them," McClain said. "It's really a very small amount of money if you do the math. It's paid out over 20 years, it's $765 million total. It's a little under $20 million a year the teams are contributing to these very severely injured people. It's not very much money."
It wasn't known whether similar lawsuits might be filed in other states, given the nation's patchwork workers' compensation laws. McClain said Missouri presented a "unique opportunity" because a state workers' comp statute was amended in 2005 to exclude cases of occupational injury that occur over an extended time.
That exception more commonly applies in workplaces where smoking is allowed and workers suffer lung problems because of it. McClain also represented workers at a Jasper popcorn plant who were awarded millions of dollars in lawsuits claiming they got cancer because of a chemical in butter flavoring used at the plant.
"Steps could have been taken like keeping them out longer after concussions," McClain said. "A whole series of things could have been done."
The lawsuit says the Chiefs ignored decades of research indicating that concussions cause long-term brain damage, instead referring to the injuries as "getting your bell rung" or a "ding." It accuses the team of lying to players in saying concussions are not serious injuries.
"Every time I would get a head injury I would stay in or come to the side and get smelling salts and go back in," Martin said. "The pressure was there. If you were first team, you got all the reps."
McClain said the notion that CTE can be diagnosed only through a post-mortem examination is outdated.
"That's an old position," he said. "Most of the neurologists we've been in discussion with believe most if not all professional football players do have CTE to some degree or another."
He said the Chiefs should do the right thing.
"They are injured. They are hurt. They need to be compensated," McClain said about the former players. "The right thing for the Chiefs to do is recognize their success has been built on the sacrifices they made."
Fellow plaintiffs' attorney Dirk Vandever cited a recent UCLA study in which researchers said they were able to correlate some of the clinical problems they found and conclude they likely represent CTE.
"After you see 19 out of 20 brains autopsied have CTE, as well as the ongoing widespread nature of the injury to players, doctors are fairly able to conclude players, based upon their symptomology, do or do not have the disease," Vandever said.
For the players this is about more than money. They said this is about changing the culture in the NFL and keeping players safe from Pop Warner to the NFL.
Martin said he suffers from headaches and other issues, years after his playing days.
"People think that football ends when the player leaves the field. But now we are learning that football is not going to end until you are in the grave," Martin said. "It's not going to end. Football continues for me. You can't treat us like we leave the game and that's the end. We take football to the grave."
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other athletes who suffered concussions have been diagnosed after their deaths with CTE, including Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, who both committed suicide. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre has discussed the memory issues he's had after retiring.
In August, the NFL agreed to settle lawsuits filed by more than 4,500 former players who developed dementia or other concussion-related health problems they say were caused by playing football. The settlement, subject to approval by a federal judge Philadelphia, would apply to all past NFL players and spouses of those who are deceased.
Plaintiff's attorneys say individual payouts would be capped at $5 million for men with Alzheimer's disease; $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy; and $3 million for players with dementia.
About 19,000 retired players would be eligible to seek awards or medical testing, but current players are not part of the deal. The settlement does not include an admission from the NFL that it hid information from players about head injuries.
At the time, the settlement announcement appeared to remove a major legal and financial threat hanging over the NFL. But if too many former players opt out, the deal could fall apart.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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