Ex-Florida footballers can proceed vs. NCAA, not conference

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin

April 2, 2020

The NCAA will go it alone defending against a proposed class-action lawsuit alleging football players at the University of Florida were not adequately protected from the effects of repeated concussions.

In a written opinion this week, U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee dismissed the Southeastern Conference — of which Florida is a member school — as a defendant in the suit.

Lee did not rule on the merits of the claims against the SEC, which included negligence, fraudulent concealment and breach of contract.

Instead, he held courts in Indiana lack both general and personal jurisdiction over the SEC, which is headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., and has member universities in several southern states.

Lee applied Indiana law because the suit was initially filed under diversity jurisdiction in the federal court in Indianapolis, where the NCAA is based.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred the case from the Southern District of Indiana to the Northern District of Illinois in October 2016.

Plaintiff Jamie Richardson played wide receiver for the Florida Gators from 1994 to 1996. He alleges he repeatedly suffered concussive and subconcussive hits during practices and games and repeatedly was put back into play.

Richardson also alleges the NCAA and the SEC failed to provide adequate concussion treatment or to establish adequate return-to-play guidelines and safety protocols for managing concussions while he was playing.

The NCAA and SEC failed to act even though they knew such measures were necessary to guard against the risks of traumatic brain injury, Richardson alleges.

As a result of the repeated hits he sustained, Richardson maintains, he suffers from severe headaches, memory loss, dizziness and other serious symptoms.

Richardson contends he and other Florida players depended on the NCAA and the SEC to protect their health. But the two organizations concealed information about the dangers of concussive and subconcussive hits, Richardson contends.

In December 2017, the SEC moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Lee granted that motion Monday.

Citing Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408 (1984), he wrote that “general jurisdiction exists where the defendant has continuous and systematic general business contacts with the forum.”

The SEC has never established an office, maintained any employees or hired an agent to accept service of process in Indiana, Lee wrote. Also, he wrote, none of the SEC’s members are located in Indiana.

“Despite this, Richardson argues that the SEC is subject to general jurisdiction in Indiana because the SEC broadcasts its sports programming into all fifty states, including Indiana, thereby generating millions of dollars of revenue,” Lee wrote.

“But the SEC’s efforts to broadcast television programming into all fifty states does nothing to prove that its contacts with Indiana are greater than its contacts with other states.”

Lee also rejected the argument that the SEC is subject to specific jurisdiction in Indiana.

Specific jurisdiction exists where “the defendant has purposefully directed his activities at the forum state or purposefully availed himself of the privilege of conducting business in that state” and “the alleged injury arises out of the defendant’s forum-related activities,” Lee wrote, quoting Tamburo v. Dworkin, 601 F.3d 693 (7th Cir. 2010).

To be subject to specific jurisdiction, he wrote, citing International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945), a defendant must have minimum contacts with the state where the case is brought.

And maintaining the suit in that state must not run counter to “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice,” Lee wrote, quoting Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457 (1940).

He wrote the SEC does not have such contacts with Indiana.

The University of Florida has not played a football game in Indiana since the SEC’s formation in 1933, and the SEC has never hosted an athletic competition in the state, Lee wrote. And he wrote the NCAA was headquartered in Kansas when Richardson played football, so SEC employees would have traveled to the Kansas City suburbs rather than Indiana for conference meetings.

The case is Jamie Richardson v. Southeastern Conference, et al., No. 16 C 9980.

The lead attorney for Richardson, Jay Edelson of Edelson P.C., could not be reached for comment.

The SEC is represented by attorneys with Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson P.A. in Charlotte, N.C. who include Pearlynn G. Houck.

“As counsel for the Southeastern Conference, we are pleased with the court’s ruling earlier this week,” Houck wrote in an email.

Mark S. Mester of Latham & Watkins LLP represents the NCAA.

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