It has been nearly two years since Ereck Plancher, a former Lely High School football star, collapsed on a University of Central Florida practice field and later died.
However, a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family continues onward in the Orange County Circuit Court system.
An attempt by the defense to bring the lawsuit to a close on the basis of a medical waiver signed by Plancher was unsuccessful, following a judge’s ruling in December. In a Dec. 18 hearing, attorneys for the UCF Board of Trustees and the UCF Athletics Association, the two defendants in the lawsuit, argued that by signing the waiver, Plancher absolved the university of any liability.
“Summary judgment on the affirmative defense of release is denied since the court cannot conclude the release and its language is unequivocal and unambiguous,” reads the ruling by Orange Circuit Court Judge Maura Smith, issued Dec. 23.
Plancher, then a 19-year-old freshman wide receiver, collapsed during a March 18, 2008 off-season conditioning workout. He was taken to a hospital, and died about an hour later. An autopsy found that Plancher died from complications due to physical stress, which triggered a sickle cell trait believed to have caused his body to shut down. In people who carry the trait, red blood cells can malform, or become sickle-shaped, and stop carrying oxygen to the organs.
Many of the interviews and depositions made public since Plancher’s death have hinged on whether coaches and athletic staff knew Plancher carried the sickle cell trait, and whether Plancher had been informed of that fact before hitting the practice field. Attorneys representing the family have argued that the waiver did not absolve the coaching staff of its responsibility to properly care for Plancher.
Also as a result of the Dec. 18 hearing, Smith turned down a motion by the UCF Athletics Association, in which it was seeking to get designated as a state agency, and therefore entitled to sovereign immunity — a measure that limits the ability of government agencies to be sued for money claims. An agency granted sovereign immunity cannot be made to pay a claim of more than $200,000 without an act of the Legislature.
While the athletics association is a supporting entity of the university, and receives some oversight from the state school, the court declined to draw such a direct line.
“There are no Florida state court decisions directly on point interpreting whether a university direct-support organization is entitled to sovereign immunity, and the issue is a close one,” Smith wrote in her ruling. “Although the parties are anxious for a ruling, this court reluctantly concludes that it is best to have a fully developed record before a final evaluation on this decision.”
Attorneys representing Plancher’s family, Enock and Giselle Plancher of Naples, say they are now hoping for a jury trial in the summer, possibly in July or August.
Attorneys for the family say the bulk of the work remaining in the case will lie in taking depositions from the key players, including Ereck Plancher’s parents. A trial date will likely be set during a spring court hearing, Jeffrey Denis Murphy, a Tampa-based attorney for the Planchers, said this week.
No phone number is listed for Giselle and Enock Plancher, and their attorneys declined to provide contact information for them. Ereck Plancher was close to both of his parents, and the loss continues to weigh heavy on the family, Tampa trial attorney David Dickey said.
“They want to never see this happen to anyone else again — that the proper procedures and protocol are not only in place, but that they are followed,” said Dickey, adding that the Planchers want to help ensure that “good athletes with sickle cell trait know what to expect, know their limitations.”
Attorneys retained by both the UCF Board of Trustees and the UCF Athletic Association could not be reached for comment.
Connect with education reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale.