On Thin Ice: Concussion-Related Class Actions Pummel the NHL

By Margaret Kelly

(Editor’s note: What follows is an excerpt from a story that appeared in Concussion Litigation Reporter. To see the full story and subscribe, visit https://concussionpolicyandthelaw.com/subscribe/)

On July 25th, the National Hockey League was hit hard by the latest in a series of concussion-related class actions.  Throughout the body of this latest lawsuit (and its brethren) the NHL is brashly cast as deliberately promoting an environment conducive to grievous head injuries, intentionally withholding evidence clarifying the gravity of the associated risks, and failing to shield its players with reasonable regulations, all out of a callous pursuit for profits. If anything is clear, here, it’s this: these are fighting words and the mitts are off.

The Crash-Line[1]

The most recent lead plaintiffs joining the crash-line against hockey’s premiere league are former NHL players Dan Fritsche and Chris Ferraro. Both suffered repeated concussions over the course of their careers and reportedly continue to endure the consequences today.

Fritsche and Ferraro join an increasingly daunting line-up of former pro-players filing suit against the NHL on similar charges; theirs is one of four concussion-related lawsuits filed against the NHL in the last year, the largest of which—filed last November—has reportedly grown to include hundreds of former players.

As an evocative lawsuit filed by former NHL defenseman Jon Rohloff forcefully begins, “former NHL players are uniting to send one resounding message: they signed up to play hockey knowing that they might get injured and dinged, but they did not sign up for brain damage.”

While Rohloff is the only former player so far to file individually, the recent suit led by Fritsche and Ferraro is representative of the concordant class actions.

A Formidable Faceoff[2]

In its opening lines, the Fritsche-Ferraro suit identifies itself as arising from the debilitating effects of repetitive concussions, long-suffered by NHL players. The lawsuit alleges, in the main, that the NHL has breached its duty to protect its players by creating, fostering and promoting a culture of extreme violence on the ice, where head trauma has been and remains an imminent threat. Plaintiffs further contend throughout the suit that the NHL has negligently and brazenly failed to enact reasonable rules and regulations that could reduce incidents of head trauma and otherwise mitigate its effects.

A final, disquieting theme throughout is the lawsuit’s contention that the NHL has been aware for decades of the explicit risks associated with repetitive concussions—which plague the sport at epidemic levels—but has “deliberately ignored” and “actively concealed” the information from the plaintiffs, not to mention all other hockey players, at every level, nationwide.

Demanding the Sin Bin[3]

Canvassing the laundry list of substantive allegations, the suit alleges, first and foremost, that NHL hockey is problematically characterized by “extreme violence and fighting” not otherwise witnessed in comparable elite-level hockey organizations worldwide. The suit contends that other hockey leagues, such as those across Europe, the Olympics and the NCAA, have nearly eliminated the brutality that remains a marked feature of NHL contests. Indeed, “extreme violence,” plaintiffs insist—well beyond that which exists in other elite hockey leagues worldwide—has been and remains “integral” to the NHL.

The complaint goes onto reference studies observing “epidemic levels” of head trauma in current and former NHL players, and thereafter identifies four principal culprits behind the league’s scourge of concussions, and its corresponding culpability:

  1. The NHL’s promotion of violence and compatibly permissive stance re: fighting
  2. The NHL’s active down-playing of the risks associated with repetitive head trauma
  3. The NHL’s inadequate rules, regulations and concussion protocols
  4. The NHL’s passive endorsement of insufficient protective gear

The suit asserts with great force that the NHL …

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