LOS ANGELES – In a verdict that could affect countless claims by athletes who sue sports organizations for head injuries, a Los Angeles jury on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit seeking $55 million by the widow of a former USC football player who said the NCAA failed to protect him from repeated head trauma that led to his death.
Matthew Gee, a linebacker on the 1990 Rose Bowl-winning squad, endured an estimated 6,000 hits as a college athlete, lawyers for his widow said. They alleged those impacts caused permanent brain damage, and led to cocaine and alcohol abuse that eventually killed him at age 49.
The NCAA, the governing body of U.S. college sports, said it had nothing to do with Gee's death, which it said was a sudden cardiac arrest brought on by untreated hypertension and acute cocaine toxicity.
Hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits have been brought by college football players against the NCAA in the past decade, but Gee’s was the first one to reach a jury. The suit alleged that hits to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease known by the acronym CTE.
Judge Terry Green told jurors in Los Angeles Superior Court they “made history” in the first case of its kind.
The verdict likely gives the NCAA more leverage in future cases, said Dan Lust, a sports law attorney and professor at New York Law School.
“Any plaintiff's attorney is going to think twice before putting all the chips on the table and pushing them to the middle and saying, ‘We’re going to take our case to trial and see what happens,’” Lust said.
Alana Gee choked up as the verdict was read and had tears in her eyes afterward. She told one of her lawyers that she didn’t understand how the jury came to the decision, but thanked the seven women and five men on the panel personally as they left the courtroom. She declined to comment afterward.
Gabe Feldman, a sports law professor at Tulane University, said proving Gee died specifically from invisible injuries suffered at USC — and not something that occurred before or after his college career — was always going to be challenge, especially when he had so many other health problems.
That was further complicated by the NCAA argument that they did the best they could for safety with the information they had at the time, and that players assumed the risks of an inherently dangerous sport.
“Given the unpopularity of the NCAA and a sympathetic plaintiff, and the jury still ruled against the plaintiff, that’s fairly telling,” Feldman said. “This was a calculated risk by the NCAA taking this to trial knowing that this could possibly be a bellwether case that could potentially provide a roadmap to hundreds or thousands of other plaintiffs.”
The jury had to vote at least 9-3 to reach a verdict on questions asking whether the NCAA did something or failed to do something that increased risks to Gee and whether it failed to take measures that would have minimized risks to Gee without altering the sport of football. The panel voted 11-1 and 10-2 answering those questions in favor of the NCAA.
“We feel deep sympathy for the Gee family right off the bat,” said NCAA attorney Will Stute. “But we feel like this verdict is a vindication of the position we’ve taken in all these cases, which is the science and medicine in Matthew Gee's circumstance did not support causation.”
Stute had argued that medical evidence is not clear on what causes CTE, and what the impacts are from that disease.
Attorneys for Gee said CTE, which is found in athletes and military veterans who suffered repetitive brain injuries, was an indirect cause of death because head trauma has been shown to promote substance abuse.
Alana Gee had testified that the college sweethearts had 20 good years of marriage before her husband's mental health began to deteriorate and he became angry, depressed and impulsive, and began overeating and abusing drugs and alcohol.
The NCAA said the case hinged on what it knew at the time Gee played, from 1988-92, and not about CTE, which was first discovered in the brain of a deceased NFL player in 2005.
Gee never reported having a concussion and said in an application to play with the Raiders after graduating that he had never been knocked unconscious, Stute said.
“You can’t hold the NCAA responsible for something 40 years later that nobody ever reported,” Stute said in his closing argument. “The plaintiffs want you in a time travel machine. We don’t have one … at the NCAA. It’s not fair.”
Attorneys for Gee's family said there was no doubt Matt Gee suffered concussions and countless sub-concussive blows.
Mike Salmon, a teammate who went on to play in the NFL, testified that Gee, who was team captain his senior year, once was so dazed from a hit that he couldn't call the next play.
Gee was one of five linebackers on the 1989 Trojans squad who died before turning 50. All displayed signs of mental deterioration associated with head trauma.
As with teammate and NFL star Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012, Gee’s brain was examined posthumously at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and found to have CTE.
Jurors were not allowed to hear testimony about Gee's deceased teammates.
Alana Gee's lawyers had argued that the NCAA, which was founded in 1906 for athlete safety, had known about impacts from head injuries since the 1930s but failed to educate players, ban headfirst contact, or implement baseline testing for concussion symptoms.