Iowa schools brace for impact of concussion lawsuits

Concussion-related lawsuits are flowing through courts at a no-huddle pace. (Photo: Gannett Illustration)

Concussion-related lawsuits are flowing through courts at a no-huddle pace. (Photo: Gannett Illustration)

A former Bedford athlete now spends his days in a wheelchair, the lingering result of head injuries he believes occurred because of playing football three years ago.

Kacey Strough, now 18, received nearly $1 million from a U.S. District Court in Des Moines on May 11. A jury found the school district at fault because the school nurse was negligent in notifying coaches and Strough’s guardian of a possible concussion.

It’s the first case of a former Iowa athlete receiving such damages from a school, but it’s likely not the last.

Concussion-related lawsuits are flowing through courts at a no-huddle pace:

  • A former Clear Lake football player who was injured in 2012 is suing the school district for alleged injuries believed to be aggravated by his continued play after a concussion. The case is expected to go to court in 2016.
  • The Illinois High School Association is the first state high school athletic group to be sued by former athletes regarding head injuries. The IHSA announced several measures to prevent concussions earlier this month.
  • The NFL settled a concussions suit in April that could amount to $1 billion for thousands of former players.
  • A group of former college athletes is suing the NCAA for head injuries they received. A proposed settlement in April sets up a $70 million fund to provide head injury evaluations for the next 50 years for athletes and requires the organization to step up safety efforts.

The growing attention on concussions has raised questions about the future of football, which has the highest concussions rate of any sport, and whether school districts can afford the potential onslaught of court cases.

Concussions have become a hot topic in other sports, too, even those considered “non-contact.” Iowa’s schools and state athletic organizations are trying to prevent concussions through education and other safety measures.

“We certainly know that a lawsuit could be filed against a coach or school or the association at any time,” said Alan Beste, the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s executive director. “We’re doing what we can to try to protect students.”

But not everyone believes the state associations and Iowa lawmakers are doing enough.

Troy Kleese, a certified athletic trainer and Iowa Sports Medicine director for physiotherapy associates, thinks Iowa needs a tighter definition governing who can determine when an athlete can return to play.

In the Bedford lawsuit, school nurse Andrea Schuelke made an error when she assessed Strough, the jury found.

“She didn’t think he had a concussion, according to his symptoms,” said Gregory Barntsen, the attorney for the school district. “Obviously, this was a mistake.”

Concussions common in many sports

Concussions are the most common injuries that keep athletes out of one or more days of practice or competition in football, boys’ and girls’ soccer, wrestling, softball and baseball, according to a National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System study of nine sports for the 2013-14 school year.

Iowa does not record concussion data for high schools. However, more than 300,000 athletes across the country reported missing one or more days because of concussions, or about 22 percent of all such sidelining events, the survey reported.

In all high school and college athletics during the period from July 2012 to June 2013, the time that includes Strough’s injury, 29 catastrophic events were reported to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. From 1982 to 2013, when the annual survey has been conducted, 80 percent of severe injuries were at the high school level.

Although insurance will cover Bedford’s financial liability, it’s possible some schools could eventually abolish football, according to Nicholas Johnson, a former sports law professor at the University of Iowa.

Johnson said he believes the sport will survive.

“I don’t think we’re going to see Ohio State playing flag football, either,” Johnson said.

Galen Howsare, deputy executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards, isn’t as certain when he watches concussion-related lawsuits work their way through the court system.

He compared the liability issues of sports to trampolines: they used to be common, but too many injuries have made them scarce.

“The same thing could happen if you wake up, and there’s no football,” he said.

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