The youth football organization, Pennsylvania-based Pop Warner, has settled a lawsuit filed in Wisconsin by the mother of a man who committed suicide, allegedly as a result of suffering numerous head injuries as child playing in a Pop Warner football league.
Debra Pyka filed suit against the Pop Warner Foundation and others in the federal court for Wisconsin’s western district in February 2015. The suit alleges that at age 25, Pyka’s son, Joseph Chernach, committed suicide as a result of brain damage he suffered during the four years he participated in Pop Warner the football program.
Chernach, who played games in Wisconsin and Michigan, began participating in the league when he was 11.
An autopsy after his death revealed that Chernach suffered from the disease known as Demenitia Pugilistica, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The disease was a substantial factor contributing to his suicide as it “caused severe emotional, behavior, cognitive and physical problems,” all of which contributed to Chernach’s mental state of mind at the time of his hanging,” the lawsuit states.
Chernach had experienced numerous concussions while playing football — some of which occurred during the time he played Pop Warner football, according to the lawsuit. He suffered from Post Concussion Syndrome at the time of his death, which also “was a substantial factor contributing to Joseph Chernach’s hanging death,” the suit states.
The lawsuit alleges that the Pop Warner organization was aware that the risk of injury to young children playing football was even greater than the risk to older players, but failed to warn the players and their families about that heightened risk.
“The sport of tackle football is made even more abnormally dangerous by playing the sport with a football helmet, especially for children for whom the weight of the helmet is disproportionately heavy for their necks and bodies,” the suit states.
The lawsuit also alleges that “Pop Warner’s conduct in organizing, promoting and allowing children to play tackle football with helmets – and failing to warn children and parents of the risk of permanent brain damage – intentionally, maliciously or in the alternative, recklessly exposed children to the risk of injury including head, brain and other injuries.”
The suit sought $5 million in damages from Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., the Pop Warner Foundation and the organization’s insurer at the time of the suit, Lexington Insurance Company.
The Associated Press reported that Pop Warner spokesman Brian Heffron confirmed a settlement was reached but said couldn’t discuss details.
According to the New York Post, the case was settled for less than $2 million. Pop Warner reportedly had carried $2 million in liability insurance on its players in Wisconsin through Lexington.
The Post reported that the organization now carries $1 million in liability coverage per player with K&K Insurance Group, and that individual chapters have the option to purchase an added $1 million per player.
Responding to the risk of concussions, Pop Warner in 2012 changed its rules regarding head-on tackles. According to the organization’s website, it no longer allows “full speed head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than 3 yards apart.” The new rules also limit the amount of contact at each practice “to a maximum of 1/3 of practice time.”
The organization also now requires all Pop Warner athletes suspected of suffering a head injury or concussion be removed from “practice, play or competition.” An athlete who has been removed under suspicion of a head injury or concussion “may not return until the participant has been evaluated by a currently licensed medical professional trained in the evaluation and management of concussions and receives written clearance to return to play from that licensed practitioner,” according to information on Pop Warner’s website.
Long Term Effects
Pop Warner faces numerous other similar legal challenges, and some observers expect this settlement, along with increased awareness of head injury risk in contact sports, may encourage more parents to file suit against the organization.
In December 2014, the Associated Press reported that a Los Angeles judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit by a teenager who was paralyzed while making a tackle during a Pop Warner football game.
That suit alleges the Pop Warner coaches encouraged dangerous, head first tackles and that coaches knew of the head injury risks, according to ESPN.
The NFL and the NCAA have both faced concussion lawsuits over football head injuries by adult players.
In November 2015, the NFL “asked a U.S. appeals court to uphold a potential $1 billion plan to settle thousands of concussion lawsuits filed by former players,” the AP reported.
In 2014, the NCAA proposed a $75 million plan to settle nationwide litigation over college sports related head injuries.
High school athletic associations are not immune to injury related litigation, either. A suit was filed in 2014 against the Illinois High School Association by a former high school quarterback alleging the organization “didn’t do enough to protect him from concussions when he played and still doesn’t do enough to protect current players,” the AP reported.
Bloomberg reported in December 2014 that a 2013 study presented at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America showed that even without an actual concussion, a single high school football season with heavy hits “led to observable brain abnormalities.”
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