In June 2014, Matthew Onyshko and his wife (individually and collectively “Athlete”) filed a two-count Complaint alleging negligence and loss of consortium against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) based on its alleged failure to adequately supervise, regulate, and minimize the risk of long-term brain injury resulting from repeated head impacts. Athlete contended that these failures increased Athlete’s risk of developing long-term health conditions when, as a California University of Pennsylvania (“University”) student-athlete, he relied upon the NCAA to protect his health and safety. This action is based on Athlete recently being diagnosed with brain and spinal cord injuries he attributed to repeated blows to his head suffered during his five-year collegiate football career at University between 1999 and 2003.
The NCAA filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that 1) the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions time-bars Athlete’s claims, and the discovery rule does not toll their claims; 2) the NCAA assumed no legal duty to protect Athlete from the long term risks of concussion while playing collegiate football because there is no duty to protect from the inherent risks of an activity, thereby precluding its negligence claim; 3) the NCAA did not breach any purported duty to protect Athlete against the long-term risks of concussion while playing collegiate football; 4) that Athlete’s alleged head injuries incurred while playing NCAA football did not cause his subsequent development of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“ALS”); and 5) the loss of consortium claims should fail because it is a derivative claim which cannot survive independently of Athlete’s negligence claim. The NCAA’s Motion for Summary Judgment was denied in total.
The NCAA argued that Athlete’s claims are barred by a two-year statute of limitations. Conversely, Athlete argued that the statute of limitations was tolled. Athlete alleged that he was not aware that he possibly suffered from an injury caused by repeated head trauma due to the negligence of the NCAA until 2012. The Court analyzed the evidence in a light most favorable to Athlete and, thus, concluded whether Athlete exercised reasonable diligence in investigating his injury during the relevant period are issues of fact to be determined by the jury.
The NCAA next argued that it does not owe a duty of care to Athlete on the ground that there is no duty to protect Athlete from inherent risks in an activity. Athlete argued that the NCAA owed a legally recognized duty based on the NCAA’s 1) failure in its undertaking to provide adequate educational and safety standards for student-athletes to act as a leader in protecting student-athletes; 2) failure in its undertaking to assist member institutions in protecting student-athletes; 3) assumption of a duty to student-athletes by undertaking to act as a leader in providing “healthy and safe” environments; and 4) assumption of the duty owed to student-athletes by member institutions to formulate safety guidelines.
The Court disagreed with the NCAA’s argument and stated “[t]his argument lacks merit because it oversimplifies and conflates the risk of injury with the negligent treatment, management and prevention of such injuries. While suffering a head injury in the course of playing football is likely a danger inherent to the sport, the negligent treatment and management of such injuries, leading to severe long term damage, is beyond the scope of inherent risk assumed by players. Thus, waiving the risks arising from contact in football itself is different than waiving being properly supervised.”
The NCAA then argued that even if there is a legal duty, the record established as a matter of law that it did not breach such legal duty. Athlete contended that the he never received any education from the NCAA or the team coaches or trainers about the symptoms of a head injury or medical knowledge of when it was safe to return to play after sustaining a head injury. As a result, the Court concluded there is an issue of material fact that existed regarding whether the NCAA breached its alleged legal duty to institute proper safety policies that educate and protect Athlete from long-term head injuries.
The NCAA argued that 1) there is no evidence that Athlete suffered head trauma while competing for University and 2) there is no generally accepted scientific or medical evidence establishing a causal link between injuries and ALS. Athlete testified that he experienced concussion-like symptoms while playing collegiate football including blackouts, memory loss, dizziness, light sensitivity, headaches, and confusion. Athlete’s testimony created a fact issue over whether he suffered from head trauma while competing for University. The Court then found that experts have also testified that concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head sustained while playing college football can cause ALS. Accordingly, there is an issue of material fact that must be decided by the jury.
The NCAA argued Athlete’s wife’s loss of consortium claim cannot survive. Being that the Court denied the NCAA’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the loss of consortium survives.