June 25 (Bloomberg) -- The National Football League agreed to lift a cap on cash awards to settle concussion claims after a federal judge said she was concerned not all players could be paid from a proposed $675 million compensation fund.
Under a revised settlement agreement filed today in federal court in Philadelphia, the NFL will pay at least $675 million to retirees suffering from injuries including dementia and agreed to absorb costs above that amount. Dollar amounts for medical tests and educational programs remain the same.
“We’re definitely talking millions more in payments, but no one really knows at this point whether it will grow into billions more,” John Banzhaf, a public-interest law professor at George Washington University who has been following the settlement talks, said in a phone interview.
More than 5,000 former football players had sued the league seeking damages for head injuries. In the complaints, consolidated before U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, the retirees accused the NFL of negligence and failing to inform players of the link between repeated traumatic head impacts and long-term brain injuries.
Chris Seeger, a co-lead attorney for the suing ex-players, declined to say whether actuaries had established an upper limit for the monetary fund.
“It’s almost irrelevant at this point in an uncapped deal,” Seeger, who helped negotiate the accord, said today during a conference call. “We have some real security in this case.”
Brody in January denied preliminary approval of the settlement, valued at $765 million, citing concerns that it may be insufficient to cover about 20,000 retired players for a 65-year term. She asked for more documentation, including economic analyses conducted by plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The uncapped fund “should quell any concerns the court has about the fairness, reasonableness and adequacy of the proffered settlement,” players’ lawyers said in court papers explaining the new accord.
Lawyers for both sides reached agreement after six months of wrangling, according to the filing. In exchange for an unlimited compensation fund, the NFL insisted on language to prevent fraudulent claims. The revised agreement also tightens restrictions for audits of payments and damage award appeals.
“A settlement that allows claims to be fully assessed and valued is a great deal for all players,” Don Migliori, a Rhode Island-based lawyer representing more than 50 retired NFL players, said in a phone interview.
Besides the compensation fund, the settlement includes $75 million for medical tests, $10 million for educational programs promoting player safety and $4 million for administrative expenses. Attorney fees of $112.5 million remain unchanged under the new deal.
“Today’s agreement reaffirms the NFL’s commitment to provide help to those retired players and their families who are in need, and to do so without the delay, expense and emotional cost associated with protracted litigation,” Anastasia Danias, the league’s chief litigation officer, said in a statement.
Eligibility requirements for cash payment under the settlement remain the same. Compensation will be based on a list of qualified injuries including neurocognitive impairment resulting in memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease and will be paid based on age and time in the league.
Lawyers for several plaintiffs, including the family of Junior Seau, the linebacker who committed suicide in 2012, challenged the initial settlement citing deficiencies including its failure to address wrongful-death claims of family members.
Under the new accord, families of deceased retired NFL players who were diagnosed with qualifying conditions before death, or who died before the settlement’s approval, may apply for cash awards.
Another change in the settlement is the NFL’s agreement to drop a proposed ban on concussion suits against the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The new deal allows players to sue the college sports body over the same concussion issues they raised with the professional league.
Seeger, the retirees’ lawyer, cautioned players against opting out of the revised settlement. The league’s legal defenses include an argument that the claims are pre-empted by labor contracts and some are too old to be raised, he said.
“Continuing to litigate against the NFL is a long and uncertain road that could take them many years and ultimately leave retired players with nothing at all,” Seeger said today during a press conference.
The case is In re National Football Players’ Concussion Injury Litigation, 12-md-02323, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).
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