For Enock and Gisele Plancher, Thursday’s verdict was about more than $10 million.
The civil lawsuit they won against the University of Central Florida was a statement on the treatment of athletes with sickle cell trait, which led to the death of their son, Ereck, in 2008 at the end of football practice.
“It may prevent other parents from enduring the most horrific human experience we can encounter in losing a child,” Steve Yerrid, the Planchers’ lawyer, said. “For them, the justice was not just for their family.”
The six-person jury’s ruling likely will bring more attention to sickle cell trait, a blood disorder, and put schools and trainers on further notice about how to treat athletes with the condition.
“I’m sure it will have some impact,” said Scott Anderson, head trainer for the University of Oklahoma’s athletic department and president of the College Athletic Trainers Society. “It raises awareness and it presents an opportunity for some renewed education.”
The Orange County jury found UCF Athletics Association negligent in its handling of Plancher, a former Lely High School football star who stumbled through workouts before collapsing and dying. Lawyers for the UCFAA plan to appeal the verdict.
The jury’s findings could impact future civil lawsuits brought against schools where athletes die suddenly from sickle cell trait.
While civil cases have been filed in sickle cell trait-induced deaths before, the Planchers’ was the first known to reach a jury. All others are believed to have been dismissed or settled.
Two cases against universities resulted in $2 million settlements. Yerrid said UCF rejected a $4.75 million settlement offer several months ago.
Gene Egdorf, a Houston-based lawyer who negotiated a sickle cell trait case settlement against Rice University and has an active sickle cell trait case against the University of Mississippi, said the jury’s $10 million figure should send a warning message.
“A number like that is going to get people’s attention, and that’s what needs to get done for the better good,” Egdorf said.
Since Plancher’s death, the NCAA has made sickle cell trait testing mandatory for all incoming athletes, although it allows athletes to refuse testing if a waiver is signed releasing the school from liability. The NCAA and National Athletic Trainers’ Association also provide schools with extensive information about sickle cell trait and guidelines for monitoring athletes with the disorder.
“Between the guidelines and the opportunity for testing, it gives knowledge and parameters for education, and it gives some precautions to follow,” Anderson said.
The NCAA guidelines aren’t enforceable requirements, but rather suggestions, for handling athletes exhibiting symptoms brought on by sickle cell trait. Egdorf suggested this needs to change.
“There’s no ramifications for when (the guidelines) are ignored,” Egdorf said. “The NCAA certainly has a mechanism to enforce it.”
In the past, some families who received settlements from sickle cell trait lawsuits started foundations to raise awareness about the disorder. Yerrid said he expects the Planchers to consider following suit, but said the family hasn’t decided how the $10 million will be used.
For now, the Planchers are enjoying the relief brought on by jury’s verdict, Yerrid said.
“The fact that this was a tragic loss cannot be understated, but their motivation throughout was to make a difference,” he said. “We’re just pleased for all the athletes in the country.”