Lawyer who settled with NFL says hockey players could seek similar suit

A lead lawyer who negotiated a landmark settlement with the National Football League this week to compensate players with head trauma-related diseases suggested Friday former professional hockey players could seek similar compensation from the NHL.

“To the extent that there are hockey players with [head trauma-related health problems], perhaps they should be compensated too,” said Sol Weiss, a lawyer at Anapol Schwartz, the Philadelphia firm which launched the legal action against the NFL.

Weiss represented about 4,500 retired players who accepted $765 million from the professional football league Thursday to settle a class action lawsuit.

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The suit alleged the NFL allowed players suffering head injuries to play despite knowing it could result in long-term neurological or cognitive damage.

Similar to the NFL, the National Hockey League has been forced to confront mounting evidence showing in-game trauma to the head resulting in sustained brain damage and deterioration later on. One study, from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy found the condition of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain) among former players.

There is currently no legal motion filed against the NHL, according to a spokesman for the National Hockey League Players Association. But Canadian lawyers suggested the league is likely laying the groundwork now for a response should there be.

“They should be thinking now long and hard about how much it could cost them” if a motion was filed and the league opted to settle, Tim Gleason, a Toronto-based lawyer at Dewart Gleason LLP said.

“Players who were formerly in the NHL who are suffering from the same sort of injuries – and you can’t say there aren’t players out there suffering from these types of injuries – they’re certainly going to be encouraged by what happened with the settlement by the NFL,” David Sliman, a sports injury lawyer at Waterstone Law Group LLP in Chilliwack, B.C. said.

“And they may want to press the league on this.”

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Legal watchers said if the NHL knew injured players were returning to the ice on the advice of team or league physicians while the NHL was aware of the health risks, former players now suffering from CTE or other diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s could be in line for similar settlements to what ailing NFL retirees received this week.

“If the NHL had knowledge of that [connection between in-game trauma and long-term brain damage], where doctors were telling them that this was much more serious and we should be limiting the types of hitting we’re allowing and they didn’t do anything about it, then that’s going to be something courts won’t look favourably upon,” Sliman said.

Of the $765 million awarded to former players, $675 million is going to compensate former players and families of deceased players. The balance is being spent on research and league medical programs.

And a price has been put on individual diseases: $5-million for players suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Families of former players whose CTE was discovered after their deaths will get $4 million, while $3-million is being awarded to retirees with dementia.

By settling, the NFL avoided a public review of league documents that may have revealed when the league first became aware of the long-term ramifications of the damage to the brain sustained by players.

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Weiss, the lawyer who settled with the football league, said a trial wasn’t in the players’ best interest.

“Litigation that goes on for years is not helping either side. In this case, our goal was always to get the players who are hurt their fair compensation and the ones who are symptomatic screened by independent doctors who are not tied up with either the union or league,” he said.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the NHL said as research has come to light on diagnosing and treating head trauma, the league has been eager to adopt new safeguards and measures.

“We were pioneers among sports leagues in this area,” league spokesman John Dellapina said in an email message. “ The first to establish a concussion working group, the first to establish a return to play protocol, the first to do baseline testing and first to establish a dedicated department of player safety.”

Watch: Lawyer Sol Weiss’ comments here:

With a file from Mike Drolet


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