The NHL and attorneys for retired players announced a tentative $19 million settlement Monday in a sweeping federal lawsuit over the league's handling of concussions and other head injuries suffered while playing in the league.
A federal judge in Minnesota has overseen the case involving 318 former players who accused the NHL of failing to warn them of the effects of repeated concussions and head trauma. The settlement would resolve litigation first filed in 2013. The NHL does not acknowledge any liability for the players' claims in the settlement, which also stipulates that the league could terminate the deal if all players or their estates don't participate.
Players who opt to participate in the settlement would receive $22,000 and could be eligible for up to $75,000 in medical treatment. The league would also pay for neurological testing and assessments and establish a "common good fund" for retired players in need that would be worth up to $2.5 million.
"Significantly, the NHL has from the very beginning denied any responsibility to retired players for cognitive problems that might have occurred during their playing in the National Hockey League," Charles Zimmerman, an attorney for the players, wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. "Notwithstanding the NHL's continued denial of cause and effect, we achieve something important to players and their long term health and welfare."
Former North Stars defenseman Reed Larson, one of the plaintiffs, called the settlement "a big win" for retired players. He said their principal goal was securing medical testing and treatment for those affected by neurological conditions, as well as a fund to help players in need.
"I'm glad it's over," said Larson, 62, who played 904 NHL games over 14 seasons. "These are big steps, considering the small army we had and who we were up against."
An NHL spokesman said there would be no comment until after the opt-in period of 75 days for players. There were 146 players who added their names to the lawsuit as plaintiffs between November 2013 and this August and 172 more who joined as claimants.
On Monday, at least one plaintiff, retired player Daniel Carcillo, appeared to throw the future of the deal into uncertainty when he posted a series of tweets urging other former players to reject what he called an "insulting attempt at a settlement." Carcillo said participants in the settlement would be forced to see the same NHL and NHLPA doctors who would determine their eligibility for treatment. Plaintiffs including both Carcillo and Reed also expressed disappointment that more former players did not get involved with the lawsuit, believing a larger group of plaintiffs would have meant a quicker resolution.
Monday's announcement comes after U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson rejected a motion for class-action status in July, finding widespread differences in applicable state laws governing medical monitoring nationwide. Nelson wrote that resolving the case in a single class action would have presented significant case management difficulties.
The plaintiffs alleged that the NHL knew or should have known of a growing body of scientific evidence that linked repetitive concussive or "subconcussive" injuries to long-term neurological diseases and that the league should have warned players about the dangers of repeated brain trauma while playing the sport. The league has argued that it had a strong record on player safety and that players were aware of the risks associated with playing the sport. The NHL has also pushed back on the theory of a clear association between repeated blows to the head in sports and degenerative brain diseases.
Larson has said he suffered from depression, irritability, memory loss and sleep disorder from injuries when he was a player. In 1977, while with the Detroit Red Wings, he was hit several times in the head during a fight on the ice that resulted in a broken nasal cavity. He said he experienced "six behavorial outbursts" since retiring from the sport.
Larson is not currently suffering from any neurological illness, but said Monday he is grateful to know the NHL will pay for testing if he needs it in the future. He also is happy that the lawsuit generated greater awareness about the dangers of concussions and the risks that come with playing in the NHL. If he could do things all over again, Larson emphasized he still would choose to play in the league. But he believes the lawsuit will help athletes make educated choices in the future, as well as assist those who unknowingly put their health on the line.
"We all love the NHL," he said. "Most of us would sign up and do it again. It's an honor to play. But it needed to be a lot more fair for players who helped build the league, doing what they were asked to do. I don't like to see them tossed to the curb."