December 3, 2013

Five former players suing Chiefs over concussions

The Kansas City Chiefs are being sued by five former players hoping to learn what the team knew about concussions, and when it was known. They are seeking undisclosed financial damages. Kevin Porter, Joe Phillips, Louis Cooper, Chris Martin and Leonard Griffin are suing for damages related to brain injuries suffered during their National Football League careers.

Former Chiefs linebacker Chris Martin says he can’t put a figure on the number of concussions he suffered during his 12-year NFL career.

Martin, 52, maintains he had several, though, and says he has the brain damage — headaches and post-concussion syndrome, in particular — to prove it.

On Tuesday, just three months after the NFL agreed to settle what became known as “the Concussion Case” for $765 million, Martin joined four other former Chiefs in filing a lawsuit against the team in an attempt to learn what the organization knew about concussions, and when it was known.

The five former players are seeking undisclosed financial damages.

“I would like to have had the opportunity to know that going back on the field (after concussions) would cause me to have severe disabilities later in life — I didn’t know that,” says Martin, who played for the Chiefs during 1988-92. “That’s what the lawsuit is about, us having the opportunity to make that decision.”

Martin is joined by Kevin Porter, Joe Phillips, Louis Cooper and Leonard Griffin in

the lawsuit,

which was filed Tuesday afternoon in Jackson County circuit court. A Chiefs spokesman said the team and league were aware of the lawsuit but had no comment.

The lawsuit centers on two key factors. First, the five plaintiffs played during years — between 1987 and 1993 — when there was no collective bargaining agreement in the NFL. For this reason, the players can sue an individual team rather than the league. The NFL is not named in their suit.

Also, in 2005, there was an amendment to the workers’ compensation statute in Missouri that allowed employees to sue employers in civil court if the employees declined workers’ compensation.

The window allowing such suits to be filed expires at the end of this month.

“Missouri law is that the Chiefs, like any employer, have a responsibility to take action to be careful and safe for their employees, based on what they knew and based on what they should have known,” said

Dirk Vandever

, a lawyer for the players.

Ken McClain, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, said momentum for the lawsuit began to build when several players, led by Martin, wanted to fight back after researching the Concussion Case settlement. That’s when they realized that they stood to receive only monitoring and medical testing — not a share of the $765 million — because, to put it bluntly, they simply weren’t injured enough.

“I think all of our clients were disappointed,” McClain said of the proposed Concussion Case settlement, which still needs to be approved by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody. “It doesn’t appear that they will receive any compensation from it; it only affects players with very severe injuries, those that have dementia or currently diagnosed cognitive skills.

“But players such as these, who have post-concussion syndrome, headaches, confusion, mood swings, all the various things that we’ve seen, do not appear to be able to be compensated under the scheme, which doesn’t seem fair to any of us.”

So with the league seemingly in the clear — it did not have to admit guilt or reveal a timeline of its knowledge of brain injuries in the settlement — the five players will take aim at their former team in a suit that does not claim the team was doing anything negligent or dangerous that other teams weren’t doing.

“There have been documented references and interviews,” McClain said, “that have been recently released with people from the Kansas City Chiefs that were involved in the concussion study group and that were actively involved in minimizing those concussion-related symptoms.”

McClain was asked what the Chiefs could have done differently back then.

“One of the things they could have done is disclosed the risks they knew about, so that the players were more conscious of the risks that were being taken,” McClain said. “Many of the players were sent back into games after concussions in the same game, so they could have been prevented from having the injuries occur right on top of one another.”

Martin said he was never kept out of a game with a head injury, though he thinks there were plenty of times he should have been.

“Every time I would get a head injury, I would stay in or come to the sideline and get smelling salts and go back in,” Martin said. “If you have a concussion (now), you stay out for a game or two. To (the NFL’s) credit, they are putting rules and regulations in at this present time. Those rules and regulations were not allowed to us, so we kept playing through a concussion.”

Porter was a safety for the Chiefs from 1988 to 1992 and remained involved in the local football scene as coach of an Arena Football League team and then at Avila University. Phillips was a defensive lineman who played 14 years in the NFL, including 1992 to 1997 with the Chiefs, and later went through some well-documented legal troubles.

Cooper was a linebacker for the Chiefs during 1985-90, and Griffin played defensive end from 1986 to 1993

Carl Peterson, who served as the Chiefs’ general manager from 1989 to 2008, said Tuesday that he was unaware of the lawsuit so he couldn’t speak specifically about what the five players are contesting.

However, he did vouch for the Chiefs’ team physician for the duration of his tenure, Dr. Jon Browne, citing the way he handled former quarterback Trent Green’s severe concussion in 2006 as evidence.

“You have to rely on your medical staff,” Peterson said. “I think Trent (Green) can attest to what he did for our players when he was in charge. You always want the very, very best (for them), and I know that Jon always felt that way as he got the finest neurologist, neurosurgeon specialist for Trent.”

When asked how much money he’s seeking for his clients, McClain said that will be determined later by a jury in Jackson County.

“The way that it’s handled here is that you take your claim to the jury and they decide the amount that each player will be able to seek,” McClain said. “Wage losses and other things will be individually done as part of the lawsuit as experts are retained.”

McClain expects the lawsuit to be served to the Chiefs within the next couple of weeks. From there, he expects the organization to decide how to respond to the case.

“Usually, that means filing an answer or a motion to dismiss,” McClain said. “From there, the court will set a schedule (as) to how the suit will proceed, that we will then follow.”

Martin repeated several times Tuesday that he still loves the sport of football, noting the fact that he lets his son play — though he would not disclose his age.

He said he and the others filed the lawsuit in hopes of not only receiving some financial compensation, but also bringing awareness to their situation and getting some answers about what the Chiefs knew then regarding concussions.

“We have a message to send,” Martin said. “If we have to send it through Missouri, the Show-Me state, that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Star’s Sam Mellinger contributed to this story.

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