A game-changer for injured NFL players
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by multiple head injuries. Symptoms include memory loss, depression, and impulsive behavior, sometimes resulting in dementia. This typically does not begin until years after the injuries and, until recently, could not be diagnosed until after death.
The disease has had a devastating effect on professional football players and has dominated coverage and conversations around football at all levels.
A stunning upset for Mike Webster
Zuckerman Spaeder has been at the forefront of the CTE fight for more than a decade, since partner Cy Smith won the first-ever victory against the NFL pension plan on behalf of former Pittsburgh Steeler and Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who died in 2002 while his case was pending.
Webster had been denied full benefits by the NFL Player Retirement Plan, despite clear medical evidence supporting his total disability caused by multiple concussions.
The Webster lawsuit was the first to establish that players could be disabled as a direct result of repeated injuries to the brain. After his claim was denied by the NFL’s pension plan, the firm prevailed in federal court in Maryland and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In 2006, Zuckerman Spaeder obtained a multimillion-dollar judgment on behalf of Webster in retroactive benefits and other relief.
The following year, Cy testified before Congress about the effects of CTE. His testimony and the victory for Webster’s estate have been even more important as part of today's public, media, and legislative scrutiny of concussions in both professional and amateur sports.
The NFL tries to turn the page
Zuckerman Spaeder continued its fight for pro football retirees both in and out of the court system.
In the wake of the Webster decision and the focus on pro football concussions, the NFL faced increasing demands to change the rules of the game and to compensate retired players more fully for their injuries.
Many pro and amateur sports have now established “concussion protocols” to reduce the risk of repeated concussions during play. But the NFL continued to minimize the role of pro football in causing CTE and sought to limit its financial responsibility to ex-players.
In 2015, Zuckerman Spaeder fought against a class action settlement which sharply limited compensation for football retirees with CTE, because that settlement paid benefits only for players diagnosed with CTE after death.
Jesse Solomon and the NFL’s admission
This ongoing battle came to a head almost 10 years later in the case of Jesse Solomon, an ex-NFL linebacker suffering from CTE as a result of nine seasons of pro football and nearly 70,000 high-speed collisions.
In 1994, Solomon left professional football, earned a master’s degree, and worked as a coach and educator. By 2005, however, an MRI of Solomon’s brain showed abnormalities which forced him to retire from teaching in 2007 and resulted in his inability to work in any industry. In 2010 and 2011, Solomon's psychiatrist and a physician chosen by the NFL pension plan found that he was likely suffering from CTE. Still, the NFL fought against Solomon’s benefit claim.
On June 23, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided that the NFL’s pension plan “ignore[d] unanimous relevant” evidence, “including that of its own expert,” when it rejected Mr. Solomon’s claim.
The three-judge panel affirmed the 2016 decision of the trial court, finding that the pension plan “failed to follow a reasoned process or explain the basis of its determination,” ignored “new and uncontradicted evidence,” and “relied on no evidence at all.”
The decision was notable because doctors (including the NFL plan’s own expert) examining Mr. Solomon found he had CTE, which the NFL has long claimed (including in the class action settlement) cannot be diagnosed among the living. The Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Solomon was suffering from “CTE-related disability” and had “CTE-injuries.”