Hernandez Family Files Lawsuit against NFL

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 28, 2017

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NFLScans of the brain of former NFL superstar Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide while serving a life sentence for murder, revealed significant brain damage and signs of advanced CTE.  Researchers found Hernandez’s brain showed severe levels of degeneration, and members of his immediate family claim the injury was caused by years of playing football.  After viewing the results of the brain scan, Hernandez’s surviving family has filed a lawsuit against the NFL and the New England Patriots for failing to warn about the dangers of playing football.

Brain Study shows Hernandez Suffered Significant CTE Damage

A study conducted by Boston University researchers revealed that former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez suffered from advanced stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.  According to the BU researchers, an autopsy on Hernandez’s brain displayed a Stage 3 level of CTE, which is only one level below the most severe Stage 4.   Hernandez, who was 27 at the time of his death, registered high in the CTE scale for someone his age, even among other former football players.

Hernandez is best known for his 2015 conviction for the murder of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd in 2013.  While serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Hernandez committed suicide in April of this year by hanging himself in his jail cell.  The Hernandez family donated his brain to the BU researchers conducting the CTE study, and, after receiving the results of the autopsy analysis, have announced a lawsuit against both the NFL and the New England Patriots for allegedly misleading Hernandez about the risks associated with playing football.

Hernandez Family Files Lawsuit against NFL, New England Patriots

Hernandez’s former attorney Jose Baez, who now works with ex-player’s family, has announced a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Shayanna Jenkins, former fiancé, and the couple’s daughter.  Baez told reporters that the lawsuit filed against the NFL and the New England Patriots seeks $20 million in damages, and alleges that both the league and the team “were fully aware of the damage that could be inflicted from repetitive impact injuries and failed to disclose, treat or protect [Hernandez] from the dangers of such damage.”  According to the lawsuit, Jenkins and Avielle Hernandez, the couple’s daughter, were “deprived of the love, affection, society and companionship of her father while he was alive” due to the CTE damage.

Although the lawsuit does not directly allege that Hernandez committed his crimes because he suffered from CTE, it does point to the diseases symptoms, which include aggressiveness, erratic behavior, depression, and suicidal thoughts, as reasons for his eventual suicide in prison.  According to the suit, the Patriots performed routine exams seeking to diagnose forms of cognitive impairment, should have recognized the symptoms associated with CTE and by not doing failed to warn Hernandez of the danger allegedly associated with playing football.

The motives for the Hernandez family lawsuit are unclear, but it is possible that Baez has filed the case with the hopes that connecting the NFL to a high-profile convicted murderer will lead to a quiet settlement.  However, the NFL has preempted such a motive by announcing the league will “vigorously” challenge the allegations in court.

NFL to “Vigorously” Contest Hernandez Lawsuit

Shortly after the case was filed, NFL vice president of communications Joe Lockhart told the media that the league was in the process of reviewing the lawsuit, before saying “On first blush, we believe the claim will face significant legal issues from the start, and we intend to contest the claim vigorously.”  Lockhart’s statement is consistent with how the NFL has handled similar lawsuits in the past, as the league has routinely argued that legal challenges are to be settled under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement rather than the courts.  This position, which has been bolstered by a CTE class-action settlement with former players, has allowed the league to fight off legal challenges over CTE allegations for years. 

According to the league’s agreement with former players, any player who retired or died before 2014 could receive a payout of up to $4 million, however, by accepting these terms — which do not guarantee money — the families of the player would give up any right to sue the NFL.  Complicating matters further for the Hernandez family, the language of the settlement states any player whose careers conclude before 2014 (which does include Hernandez who was imprisoned in 2013) had to actively opt out of the agreement in order to retain their right to sue the league in the future.  Hernandez did not actively opt out of the settlement agreement, a point the league will likely point to in its response.

The NFL has yet to file a formal response to the suit, but it seems like the league will not initiate settlement negotiations.  The Patriots have not issued a public statement on the lawsuit. 

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