Student Well-Being

Parents File Class-Action Lawsuit Against Pop Warner Over Head Trauma

By Bryan Toporek — September 02, 2016 3 min read
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Two parents filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against Pop Warner Little Scholars, the nation’s largest youth-football organization, alleging that it misled parents about the safety of its program, according to the New York Times.

The lawsuit, which also includes USA Football and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or NOCSAE, alleges all three organizations “misrepresented material facts to... the public at large regarding the safety of Pop Warner tackle football, including the safety of the equipment used by minor child participants.” It notes that all Pop Warner helmets feature a sticker claiming the helmet “meets NOCSAE standard,” yet NOCSAE has no youth-specific safety standards in place, making the labels “misleading.”

The two parents who filed the suit, Kimberly Archie and Jo Cornell, had sons who played Pop Warner football during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Each child died in 2014, and both were diagnosed in 2015 with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease often found posthumously in the brains of former NFL players. Archie and Cornell filed the suit on behalf of anyone who participated in Pop Warner youth tackle football from 1997 until now, including individuals who have since died, or who have either suffered or continue to suffer from “brain injuries, damage, or disease.”

The suit alleges that Pop Warner “failed to create and implement league-wide guidelines concerning the treatment and monitoring of players who suffer a brain injury during a practice or a game,” adding that it also “failed to establish equipment standards that are designed and serve to protect minor children who participate” in its tackle football program. It further accuses the three organizations of “increas[ing] the risk of injury to minor children through repetitive head trauma coupled with the use of hard-shell helmets not adequately designed to protect their unique features and vulnerabilities.”

According to the suit, Jon Butler, the executive director of Pop Warner, “conceded in a deposition that the national office does not check” whether coaches are trained in proper tackling technique, which the organization claims to provide. By not ensuring such training, failing to develop guidelines for the handling of head trauma, and not “providing reasonably safe helmets designed for use by minor children,” the parents accuse the three organizations of increasing the risk that children suffer the effects of repeated head trauma, not limited to long-term brain damage, dementia, depression, and CTE.

In recent years, Pop Warner has made substantial policy changes with an eye on head trauma, most notably instituting a limit on the amount of full-contact practice that coaches are allowed to conduct per week. It also began banning coaches from utilizing full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills with players lined up more than three yards apart.

This isn’t the first lawsuit to be filed against Pop Warner over its handling of head trauma. Last February, a Wisconsin mother whose son participated in Pop Warner from 1997 through 2000, accused the organization of negligence for failing to train coaches properly, having no limitations on hitting in practice, using older, unsafe helmets, and failing to warn participants and parents about the risk of brain damage. According to the Times, Pop Warner settled the suit in late February of this year, much to the surprise of legal experts.

“It’s a precedent they just set,” said New Jersey-based lawyer Christopher Fusco to the paper in reference to Pop Warner. “If the leagues have good insurance policies, lawyers will go after them.”

A source likewise suggested to the New York Post at the time that the settlement could encourage similar lawsuits in the future. Six months later, that prediction has come true.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.