NCAA Settlement Could Promote Concussion Prevention and Treatment, but Leaves Member Institutions on the Hook for Future Lawsuits

February 1, 2016

By: Philip J. Zaccheo

On January 26, U.S. District Judge John Lee of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted preliminary approval of a new settlement of consolidated class action litigation involving the NCAA and former NCAA student athletes, in which the NCAA agreed to provide $70 million towards concussion research, testing and diagnosis. This settlement is largely a restatement of an earlier proposed settlement that had been rejected by the Court. As part of the original settlement, the NCAA agreed to invest in concussion research and education, and to fund physical examinations, neurological measurements, and neurocognitive assessments of individuals who in the past 50 years competed in contact sports for NCAA member institutions. All of these things were restated in the new settlement, with the addition of a greater emphasis on strengthening game time concussion protocols (“return-to-play” rules) and instruction to begin to notify those former student athletes eligible for neurological testing and assessment. Notably, neither the prior proposed settlement nor the approved settlement shields NCAA member institutions or the NCAA itself from current or future concussion lawsuits. Unlike the NFL concussion settlements in which the NFL directly compensated injured plaintiffs, the money paid by the NCAA goes straight to funding the research, education, prevention and testing discussed above. As a result, student athletes retain the ability to sue the NCAA or their institutions on grounds relating to concussion diagnosis and/or treatment, or lack thereof. In fact, the awareness initiatives funded by the settlement may increase the likelihood of claims, at least in the short run. Relatedly, about one week prior to the announcement of the approved settlement, the “Power Five” NCAA conferences proactively voted to give team trainers and physicians the “unchallengeable” authority to decide whether and when a student athlete should return to competition. This action, while not literally required by the settlement, certainly was a move toward alignment with developing best practices, and offers the potential for prospective liability protection.