Third Concussion Class Action Lawsuit Against NHL

Two more groups of former NHL players have filed class action lawsuits in federal courts in both New York and Minnesota in recent days, seeking compensation from the National Hockey League for “wrongdoing” related to concussions and head trauma sustained while playing professional hockey. These are the second and third suits of this type to be filed against the league.

Previous Lawsuits-NHL and NFL

In November 2013, ten former NHL players filed a similar claim in Washington, seeking unspecified damages related to brain injuries. These lawsuits come in the wake of a $765 million class action settlement to be paid by the NFL to thousands of former players who filed lawsuits claiming they sustained brain injuries over the course of their careers.

The NFL settlement has, by all accounts, emboldened former NHL players (and their attorneys). Although actual court approval of the NFL settlement is still pending, lawyers involved in both cases are exuding confidence. The NHL—a league historically on the forefront of player safety issues—has rejected the basis of the suits: namely, that the League knew it was actively endangering players.

NHL Players Face Hurdles Proving Their Claims

The former NHL players filing suit have some serious hurdles to overcome, both in the courts and in the court of public opinion. Unlike the NFL, the NHL has a multi-tiered feeder system. Leagues all over North America and Europe have nurtured the professional dreams of hockey players since time immemorial. Hockey players can turn pro at a very young age, and junior and minor leagues are often rife with players trying to prove themselves—often through acts of physical intimidation. The players involved in the suits are going to have a difficult time proving that their injuries are the result of their time in the NHL, as opposed to some other league. This is an even larger problem when considering the fact that many of the named plaintiffs haven’t played the equivalent of a full season in the NHL, but have played professional hockey in myriad other leagues for years.

Legally, the players may have difficulty proving their claim. While they seek to avoid an “assumption of the risk” defense by claiming the NHL committed fraud, there is little evidence that the NHL knew and actively suppressed information regarding the destructive and degenerative effects of blows to the head. In fact, the NHL will be able to point to a player safety record that includes the imposition of rules mandating helmets and severely punishing hits targeting the head. The league, in conjunction with the NHL Players’ Association, also implemented league-wide concussion protocols in the event a concussion is suspected. Public perception is that the NHL may be too focused on player safety, to the detriment of the game.

The Role of Fighting

Fighting, too, has become a flashpoint in this litigation. The Plaintiffs argue that the continued presence of “sanctioned” fighting in the NHL amounts to the league encouraging players to hurt each other for the entertainment—and money—of fans. As these three suits progress, it will be interesting to see whether the claims will translate into dollars paid.

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