Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Dismissal of Professional Football Player’s Claim for Neurological Injury Due to Defect in Helmets

These consolidated appeals arise from an important issue facing professional athletics and contemporary culture as a whole. Former professional football players are developing significant neurological disorders after sustaining repeated concussions while playing football. Evolving scientific and medical research has uncovered a link between repeated blows to the head and developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and other neurological impairments.

The plaintiffs in these cases are former professional football players who have sustained numerous concussions and are suffering the attendant neurological impairments. They have already sued the National Football League in a federal class action case and have entered into a settlement with the NFL to address their grievances. The same former players, however, now seek relief from the defendants — the manufacturers and designers of the helmets they wore while playing football.  These plaintiffs alleged that the helmet manufacturers have long known about the dangers and the harmful effects of repeated concussive and sub-concussive traumas, but they never warned the users of their helmets about the dangers; instead, they represented that their helmets were protecting these players.

The defendant-helmet manufacturers moved to dismiss these cases on the ground that the cases are barred by the two-year statute of limitations covering personal injury actions in Illinois. In response, the plaintiffs argued that the cases were not time barred because the lawsuits were filed within two years of the players learning about the injuries for which they seek relief. The trial court found that, because the players had already sued the NFL more than two years before filing these cases, the players knew about their injuries and, therefore, could have sued the helmet manufacturers at the same time – more than two years before filing these lawsuits. Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of their claims. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the plaintiffs’ claims were indeed untimely and upheld the dismissal.

The plaintiffs in these cases are 54 former professional football players. In the case of In re National Football League Players Concussion Injury Litigation, 821 F.3d 410 (3d Cir. 2016), the players’ lawsuits were consolidated into a federal class action case that eventually consisted of about 5,000 former football players who had filed substantially similar lawsuits.

In this case, the plaintiffs sued Riddell and its associated entities, which is a manufacturer of sports equipment and is the NFL’s officially licensed helmet provider. Plaintiffs allege that Ridell conspired with the NFL to misinform players about the risks of long-term brain damage that can result from playing football, even with a helmet. The plaintiffs maintained that Riddell had long known about the dangers and the harmful effects of repeated concussive and sub-concussive traumas, but that it never warned the users of its helmets about such dangers.

In the federal class action case against the NFL in which all of the plaintiffs in this case were involved, the plaintiffs therein also named Riddell as a defendant. The plaintiffs in that case claimed that Ridell should be liable for the defective designs of helmets. While Riddell was sued in that federal class action case, it was not a party to the settlement.

Riddell moved to dismiss these cases in the circuit court arguing that the claims the plaintiffs now assert are barred by the two-year statute of limitations. There is no dispute that the concussions, which were the impetus for the harms the players now face, occurred more than two years before this case was filed. The question in these cases, however, is when did the cause of action accrue for the neurological disorders the players now face and for which they now seek redress?

The plaintiffs contend that the statute of limitations for their claims against the helmet manufacturer did not begin to run until the players manifested the specific neurological injury for which now they seek damages. The plaintiffs argue that the causes of action they assert in these cases accrued no later than when they were diagnosed with one of the neurodegenerative disorders caused by the head traumas that they suffered.

On the other side, the defendant-helmet manufacturers argued that the cause of the action must have accrued earlier. Defendants contend that the statute of limitations accrued at least as early as when the plaintiffs joined and participated in the federal multi-district litigation, which the plaintiffs allege to have been injured by concussive and sub-concussive trauma and allege that the injury had been wrongfully caused.

The plaintiffs’ legal argument under the “discovery rule,” which would postpone the starting of a suit-limitations period until the injured party knows or should have known of these injuries, did not apply. Knox College v. Celotex Corp., 88 Ill.2d 407, 414 (1981). The event that triggers the running of the statutory limitations period is not the first knowledge that the injured party has of his injury and, at the other extreme, it is not the acquisition of knowledge that one has a cause of action against another for an injury he has suffered. Id. at 415. Rather, the statutory limitations period starts to run when a person knows or reasonably should know his injury and also knows or reasonably should know that it was wrongfully caused. Id.

In conclusion, it was found by the appeals panel that the trial court did not err in dismissing on statute of limitations grounds. The trial court did properly find that the instant case was time-barred since: (1) the incident action was filed more than two years after plaintiffs had previously sued the NFL in federal court alleging the existence of “head problems” while playing football; and (2) the allegations and conduct of the instant plaintiffs in the federal court action established that the plaintiffs had sufficient knowledge and could have interposed the instant claims against the defendants as early as when they pursued their claims in federal court.

The Illinois Appellate Court rejected plaintiffs’ claims that the limitations period did not start to run until they were diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder, or that the instant limitations period should be tolled due to allege fraudulent concealment committed by defendants. The appellate court held that the plaintiffs failed to show that defendants concealed any claim once the federal lawsuit was filed.

For these and other reasons, the dismissal of these consolidated lawsuits was affirmed.

Michael Butler, et al. v. BRG Sports, LLC f/k/a Easton-Bell Sports, LLC, et al., 219 IL App (1st) 180362 (First Division, Oct. 21, 2019).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling traumatic brain injury lawsuits, product defect lawsuits, pharmaceutical defect injury lawsuits and brain injury lawsuits for individuals, and families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Maywood, Forest Park, North Riverside, LaGrange Park, Brookfield, Western Springs, Countryside, Justice, Bedford Park, Winnetka, Wilmette, Skokie, Oak Park, Prospect Heights, Buffalo Grove, Hawthorne Woods, Vernon Hills, Lake Bluff, Glenview, Chicago (Irving Park, Albany Park, West Rogers Park, West Ridge. Uptown, Ravenswood Manor, Roscoe Village, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Old Town, Near North Side, Fulton River District, South Loop, Bridgeport, Canaryville, Lower West Side, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, Archer Heights, Bronzeville, Grand Boulevard, Indian Village, West Englewood), Stickney, Broadview, Westchester, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Darien, Hickory Hills and Palos Heights, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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