A federal judge on Monday granted preliminary approval to a landmark deal that would compensate thousands of former NFL players for concussion-related claims.
The judge’s consent, which was widely anticipated, means that all of the roughly 18,000 retired players and their beneficiaries can now vote on the deal, which includes a promise from the NFL to pay an unlimited amount of awards to players with certain severe neurological conditions.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia came about two weeks after the NFL agreed to remove a $675 million cap on damages. Brody had previously questioned whether that would be enough money to pay all claims.
“A class action settlement that offers prompt relief is superior to the likely alternative — years of expensive, difficult, and uncertain litigation, with no assurance of recovery, while retired players’ physical and mental conditions continue to deteriorate,” Brody wrote.
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The settlement is designed to last at least 65 years and give $1 million or more to retirees who develop Lou Gehrig’s disease and other profound neurological problems.
NFL senior vice president Anastasia Danias said in a statement that the league was “grateful to Judge Brody for her guidance and her thoughtful analysis of the issues as reflected in the comprehensive opinion she issued today.”
Even with the cap removed, both sides said they believe the NFL will spend no more than about $675 million on damage claims by ex-players.
Critics of the deal have said the league, with annual revenues approaching $10 billion, was getting off lightly. They could raise objections at a fairness hearing scheduled for Nov. 19, and ultimately opt out of the settlement.
More than 4,500 former players have filed suit, some accusing the league of fraud for its handling of concussions. They include Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett and Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers from dementia.
The lawsuit is separate from the workers’ compensation lawsuit that 14 former Chiefs players filed against the team last December in an attempt to learn what the organization knew about concussions and when it was known. The NFL is not named in the lawsuit.
Unlike players who played for teams in other states, the 14 former Chiefs, who are seeking undisclosed financial damages, are allowed to file a lawsuit against the Chiefs because of a 2005 amendment to the workers’ compensation statute in Missouri that allowed employees to sue employers in civil court if the employees declined workers’ compensation.
The new settlement allows the NFL to contest an unlimited number of requests for awards by retired players as a way to prevent fraudulent claims. Some players claim that this will narrow the number of people who might ultimately receive cash awards.
In the coming weeks, retired players will receive packets in the mail explaining the terms of the settlements. Players will be deemed to be in favor of the deal unless they opt out, which preserves their legal rights. They can also object to portions of the deal.
A group of seven players last week filed a formal objection to the settlement. If the judge does not act on their objections, they can appeal the settlement. No cash awards will be dispersed until all appeals are exhausted.
The Star’s Terez A. Paylor contributed to this report