TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A state appeals court Friday overturned a $10 million verdict against the University of Central Florida's Athletics Association, which a jury found liable for the March 2008 death of a football player whose distress was ignored and who was prevented from receiving aid.
On March 18, 2008, Ereck Plancher collapsed and died during a football practice after participating in a series of condition drills.
The Fifth District Court of Appeals found the UCF Athletics Association (UCFAA) was entitled to the same sovereign immunity that the university and other state agencies get -- meaning damages cannot exceed $200,000.
Orange Circuit Judge Robert Evans had ruled the association did not deserve that immunity because it was not sufficiently controlled by the university.
But the three-judge appellate panel said that was incorrect -- that the composition of the UCFAA board, its articles of incorporation and other factors prove it was, indeed, an extension of UCF.
"Ereck remains in our thoughts, and we honor his memory as part of our football program," UCF spokesperson Grant Heston wrote in a statement. "The ruling about sovereign immunity confirms our long-held position about this important issue, and we are pleased with the decision."
The appellate court noted it was not deciding whether UCFAA was liable for causing Plancher's death -- something the jury clearly found in the July 2011 verdict -- but, rather, whether damages should be capped at $200,000.
"It was both the coaching staff's actions and inactions that led to the tragic death of Ereck Plancher," one of the appellate judges, Wendy Berger, wrote in her section of the 28-page opinion. "It is difficult to comprehend how one human being can ignore another in obvious distress or prevent someone else from offering aid to one in distress, but, inexplicably, that is what happened here."
While sovereign immunity limits damages to $200,000, a claims bill could be filed in the legislature that, if enacted, would allow for greater amounts of compensation.
Because the award was reduced to $200,000 -- far below the $4.75 million the Plancher family demanded in a rejected pretrial settlement -- the appellate court separately found UCF did not have to pay $2.4 million in the Planchers' attorneys fees and costs.
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