PHILADELPHIA — The NFL abruptly dropped its plan Wednesday to challenge approved dementia diagnoses in a landmark concussion case as players' lawyers accuse it of trying to delay payments and rewrite the $1 billion settlement.
A federal court hearing set for Thursday on the NFL's appeal was canceled Wednesday afternoon as the league dropped its appeal. Instead, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody issued an order requiring doctors to explain their findings in certain cases.
The NFL had asked to challenge some diagnoses made by settlement-approved doctors and upheld by a court-appointed administrator whose decisions are supposed to be final. The league nonetheless filed an appeal on the grounds that the standards used to diagnose the ex-players with dementia were not being applied consistently.
The NFL argued that it had agreed to remove a $765 million cap on payouts only in exchange for "a clear demarcation of the boundary between compensable and non-compensable levels of impairment."
Some players' lawyers said the NFL is having buyer's remorse as the early payouts surge past early projections in the 65-year settlement.
Plan administrators have approved more than $600 million in claims, and paid out $425 million, in the first two years alone. In contrast, the NFL had thought it would take a decade to pay out the first $400 million, according to a lead players lawyer who called the league's appeal "meritless."
"Our advocacy on behalf of former players will continue to ensure they receive every benefit under this agreement, and that the NFL pays every dollar for which they are obligated," the lawyer, Christopher Seeger, said in a statement Wednesday.
Messages seeking comment were left with an NFL spokesman.
Several players' lawyers interviewed this month said their clients, already unwell, were becoming frustrated and even hopeless as the NFL alleged fraud or otherwise fought their claims as they moved through the administrative process.
"It's very disturbing to see what's going on," said lawyer Wendy R. Fleishman, who represents 350 retired players, including several whose final awards were put on hold amid the NFL appeals. "To the NFL, the delay is not a big deal, but it is a big deal to some of these guys.
"It seems the only purpose is to delay, to stop the claimants from getting their legitimate claims paid," she said.
Retired players can seek awards of as much as $3 million for moderate dementia and $1.5 million for mild dementia, although most men would get far less. The settlement resolves thousands of lawsuits that alleged the NFL hid what it knew about the risk of concussions in order to return players to the field.
The settlement offers retired players baseline testing and compensation for four types of illnesses — Alzheimer's disease; Parkinson's disease; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease; and dementia.