PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld an estimated $1 billion plan by the NFL to settle thousands of concussion lawsuits filed by former players, potentially ending a troubled chapter in league history.
The decision released Monday comes nearly a year after a district judge approved the revised settlement. If there are no further appeals — either to a full panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia within two weeks, or the Supreme Court within 90 days — former players already diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions could begin receiving benefits within 3-4 months, a plaintiffs' attorney said.
"I couldn't stress enough the urgency of getting this done," said attorney Christopher Seeger. He conceded the settlement was hardly perfect, but two courts had now judged it fair.
Lawyer Steven F. Molo, who argued for several former players opposed to the deal, said his clients were disappointed and considering their options.
In a statement, an NFL spokesman called the appeals court decisions "a significant step in implementing the clubs' commitment to provide compensation to retired players who are experiencing cognitive or neurological issues."
The settlement would cover more than 20,000 NFL retirees for the next 65 years. The league estimates that 6,000 former players, or nearly three in 10, could develop Alzheimer's disease or moderate dementia.
Fewer than 200 of those retirees opted out of the settlement, while 99 percent approved.
As part of the settlement, the NFL admitted no fault. A league official speaking to Congress recently acknowledged for the first time a definite link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease found in dozens of former players after their deaths. But the appeals court said that admission was not grounds to overturn the settlement.
"This settlement will provide significant and immediate relief to retired players living with the lasting scars of a NFL career ... We must hesitate before rejecting that bargain based on an unsupported hope that sending the parties back to the negotiating table would lead to a better deal," Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
The league has been dogged for years by complaints that it hid the risks of repeated concussions in order to return players to the field. The deal avoids the need for a trial and means the NFL may never have to disclose what it knew when about the risks and treatment of repeated concussions.
Players' lawyers who negotiated the deal with the NFL, and stand to split $112 million in fees, say the settlement will help families get needed financial awards or medical testing that might take years if the case went to trial. The ruling comes less than a month after lead plaintiff and former Philadelphia Eagle Kevin Turner died at 46 after battling Lou Gehrig's disease for several years.
"Compensation for players who are coping with these (neurocognitive or neuromuscular) symptoms now is surely preferable to waiting until they die to pay their estates for a CTE diagnosis," Ambro wrote.
Those challenging the deal also complained it does not cover mood and behavioral disorders that some researchers link to CTE. Ambro said that would be an "uphill battle" to prove, but said the agreement calls for reviews "in good faith" by the parties every 10 years to consider new scientific findings.
"Mood and behavioral symptoms are common in the general population and have multifactor causation and many other risk factors. Retired players tend to have many of these risk factors, such as sleep apnea, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, a high BMI, chronic pain, and major lifestyle changes," he wrote.
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody approved the deal last year after twice sending it back to lawyers over concerns the fund might run out. Individual players could receive up to $5 million individually in the case of severe brain trauma, which could put NFL payouts over 65 years, including interest and lawyer fees, expected to be more than $1 billion.
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