Ohio court to decide if ex-player can sue over concussions

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court will decide whether the widow of a former University of Notre Dame football player can sue the school and the NCAA over allegations her husband was disabled by concussions from his college career in the 1970s.

Steve Schmitz was suffering from dementia and early onset Alzheimer's disease when he and his wife, Yvette, filed a lawsuit in Cuyahoga County in October 2014. The lawsuit alleged both institutions showed "reckless disregard" for the safety of college football players and for their failure to educate and protect players from concussions.

The lawsuit said the link between repeated blows to the head and brain-related injuries and illnesses had been known for decades, but it was not until 2010 that the NCAA required colleges to formulate concussion protocols to remove an athlete from a game or practice and be evaluated by doctors.

Steve Schmitz died in February 2015. The lawsuit said the Cleveland Clinic diagnosed him in 2012 with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease attributed to receiving numerous concussions.

A judge ruled that too much time had passed for Schmitz to sue, a decision overturned by a state appeals court.

Attorneys for Schmitz argue he never knew he had been exposed to the risk of brain disease posed by "concussive blows to the head" during football. Receiving "dings" while playing and becoming temporarily disoriented is not the same as knowing at the time of an injury, David Langfitt, an attorney representing Schmitz' widow, told the court Wednesday.

"Schmitz had no knowledge that he was injured at any time," Langfitt said.

A ruling in favor of Schmitz's widow would allow her to return to court and argue the specific allegations regarding the impact of concussions on her husband, a running back and receiver.

Notre Dame and the NCAA argue the statute of limitations for Schmitz to have sued date back to his playing days when he first realized he suffered head injuries. As such, the two-year window for filing a personal injury claim had long passed, the institutions say.

A lawyer representing Notre Dame told the justices Schmitz acknowledged in his lawsuit that Notre Dame coaches encouraged players to use their helmets as weapons in a way that injured opponents and themselves.

As a result, Schmitz' injuries "were manifested immediately while he was playing football," attorney Matthew Kairis told the court.

Kairis, himself a former Notre Dame football player, also is the lead attorney for all colleges and universities in a consolidated case involving concussions in federal court in Chicago. That case involves more than 100 lawsuits brought by individual athletes against universities, conferences and the NCAA over football-related injuries.

Concussions and their effect on the brain have received considerable attention in recent years as researchers concluded there is a link between CTE and Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and dementia. In 2015, the NFL agreed to a $1 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit accusing the league of hiding the risks of concussions.

A decision from the court isn't expected for weeks.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.

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