Heads Up: Concussions, Class-Actions and the National Hockey League

October 22, 2015

Health & Safety

By Brianna Meyer – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

The Stanley Cup. Sidney Crosby. Wayne Gretzky. These buzzwords ignite dreams of aspiring elite hockey players across Canada as children of all ages commence the journey to the National Hockey League (NHL). For those that make it, the NHL provides the ultimate platform of hockey excellence. A dream come true. But at what cost?

For over 200 former NHL players, the lasting effects of head injuries sustained during their professional hockey careers have motivated a class action lawsuit against the NHL. The players allege that the league was wilfully withholding information about the long term health effects of repeated head trauma and was actively encouraging dangerous behaviour.

This lawsuit follows the successful $765 million dollar settlement for players of the National Football League sustaining similar head injuries. Boston University researchers have diagnosed several deceased NHL players as victims of trauma-related brain disease. Although this area of research is novel and still advancing, Boston University has identified a link between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and repeated blows to the head. CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in former deceased athletes often identified by the presence of hyperphosphorylated tau (an abnormal protein in brain cells).

This link is currently being questioned by the NHL who has since subpoenaed records from the Boston University researchers conducting these studies. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has rejected the very notion that the link between CTE and sports-related concussions exists at all. Besides this league denial of a connection, there are other significant obstacles that stand in the way of former NHL players claiming damages from the NHL for their injuries. The majority of the claimants are retired, which raises questions as to the limitation period upon which this litigation is brought. In addition, we are talking about professional hockey players who grew up playing in minor and amateur hockey leagues. Isolating causation and liability specifically to the NHL will be a significant burden to prove.

Despite these impediments, this issue is not going away. In February 2015, Steve Montador died at the age of 35 from an undisclosed cause. He had been exhibiting signs of a brain disorder including depression, memory problems and erratic behaviour leading up to this death. An examination of his brain post-mortem revealed that he suffered from CTE. The scope of this class-action lawsuit demonstrates that Steve Montador is not alone.

Changes to the NHL official rules to prohibit illegal checks to the head were made in 2011. But is that enough? For players suffering from the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries sustained while playing professional hockey the answer is clearly no. When elite athletes elect to participate in a sport there are always inherent risks. However, the core of this lawsuit alleges that the NHL withheld the very information players needed to know to make a rational, informed choice about taking such risks. The lawsuit emphasizes that the NHL has the capacity and the resources to better prevent head injury but failed to do so. Players can only consent to risks they are aware of. The NHL, it is alleged, blurs the lines of what players actually consent to.

CTE. Second-impact syndrome. Traumatic brain-injury. These words are killers of professional hockey dreams unless there are significant changes in the prevention, treatment and and return-to-play protocols of concussed players in the NHL. Legal accountability is one mechanism that can trigger this process. For the sake of aspiring hockey players across North America, I hope that the courts can force the NHL back into the reality of the game to deal with this issue head on.

Advertisements
, , , , , , , , ,

Follow us:

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: