Court Finds Arguments Made in Concussion Case Against NFL Sufficient to Survive Motion to Dismiss

Sep 24, 2021

A federal judge from the Eastern District of Missouri has allowed the spouse of a former NFL football player, Donnell K. Baker (Baker), to continue to bring her concussion claim, which alleges that defendants National Football League Inc./Enterprises (NFL) and Los Angeles Rams (Rams) were negligent when they failed to protect Baker from the head injuries he suffered that would prematurely take his life.

Specifically, Connie Joann Baker, representing herself as a pro se litigant, claimed that Baker “was injured, incapacitated, and died as a result of the defendants’ reckless disregard for his personal health and safety as a professional athlete.”

But the plaintiff’s claim could have easily been dismissed because of her failure to prepay the required filing fee. That failure and the defendants’ motion to dismiss suggesting her claim should be barred because of that failure were the crux of the instant opinion.

The motion to dismiss was brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), which requires a court to “dismiss a complaint filed in forma pauperis if it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” the court wrote. “To state a claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate a plausible claim for relief, which is more than a ‘mere possibility of misconduct.’ Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009).

“A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678. “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw upon judicial experience and common sense. Id. at 679. The court must ‘accept as true the facts alleged, but not legal conclusions or threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.’ Barton v. Taber, 820 F.3d 958, 964 (8th Cir. 2016). See also Brown v. Green Tree Servicing LLC, 820 F.3d 371, 372-73 (8th Cir. 2016) (stating that court must accept factual allegations in complaint as true, but is not required to ‘accept as true any legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation’).”

When reviewing a pro se complaint under § 1915(e)(2), the court noted that it “must give it the benefit of a liberal construction. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520, 92 S. Ct. 594, 30 L. Ed. 2d 652 (1972). A ‘liberal construction’ means that if the essence of an allegation is discernible, the district court should construe the plaintiff’s complaint in a way that permits his or her claim to be considered within the proper legal framework. Solomon v. Petray, 795 F.3d 777, 787 (8th Cir. 2015). However, even pro se complaints are required to allege facts which, if true, state a claim for relief as a matter of law. Martin v. Aubuchon, 623 F.2d 1282, 1286 (8th Cir. 1980). See also Stone v. Harry, 364 F.3d 912, 914-15 (8th Cir. 2004) (stating that federal courts are not required to ‘assume facts that are not alleged, just because an additional factual allegation would have formed a stronger complaint’). In addition, affording a pro se complaint the benefit of a liberal construction does not mean that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation must be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel. See McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113, 113 S. Ct. 1980, 124 L. Ed. 2d 21 (1993).”

The court then turned to the merits of the claim – the plaintiff’s argument that the defendants knew about the risk of concussion. “Rather than meeting its duty of care by protecting its employees, the plaintiff alleges that the NFL and the Rams downplayed the risks associated with football, causing harm to its players,” wrote the court.

It also recounted the Baker’s personal journey as offered by the plaintiff. He played for the NFL from 1994 to 1998. He was with the Rams from December 1996 to September 1998. During his NFL playing career, he “was knocked unconscious, suffered numerous concussions, and was ‘subjected to countless sub-concussive hits,’” according to the plaintiff. At the time that Baker played in the NFL, “there were no adequate or substantial concussion management protocols or policies in place to address and treat” his concussions.

The plaintiff stated that at some point during Baker’s professional football career, “he began exhibiting signs of declining cognitive abilities.” He also suffered from depression, mood swings, and seizures. After visiting with a neurologist, Baker was allegedly diagnosed with seizures that had been “caused from repeated hits to the head from his time playing” in the NFL. On February 5, 2020, Baker died in his sleep while having a seizure.

Thus, plaintiff argued that the NFL and the Rams negligently caused Baker’s wrongful death. Specifically, she stated that both defendants had a duty of care “to protect and promote the health and safety of its players.” This duty included appropriate guidance and regulations regarding head injuries and warnings to players about the dangers, according to the plaintiff.

Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the NFL and the Rams breached its duties by failing to implement appropriate guidelines regarding the evaluation of traumatic brain injuries, not only on the playing field, but “in the weeks and months after” sustaining an injury. She further accused the defendants of failing to provide “treatment for the latent effects” of traumatic brain injuries.

Because of this breach, Baker was exposed to repetitive head injuries that ultimately led to his death, she alleged. The plaintiff also argued that the NFL and the Rams breached an implied contract between themselves and Baker. In particular, she stated that there was an implied contract between Baker and the defendants by which Baker agreed to be bound by league and team rules, while the league and team agreed to abide by its own agreements and bylaws. The plaintiff argued that the defendants breached their implied contractual duties by failing to provide Baker with a safe working environment.

As the court noted above, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) directs it to dismiss complaints filed in forma pauperis if they are frivolous, malicious, or fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. First, with regard to frivolity, the Court may dismiss a complaint as frivolous if it lacks an arguable basis in law or fact. Martinez v. Turner, 977 F.2d 421, 423 (8th Cir. 1992). Such a dismissal encompasses allegations that are fanciful, fantastic, and delusional. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32, 112 S. Ct. 1728, 118 L. Ed. 2d 340 (1992). “[A] finding of factual frivolousness is appropriate when the facts alleged rise to the level of the irrational or the wholly incredible, whether or not there are judicially noticeable facts available to contradict them.” Id.

Here, noted the court, the plaintiff “has alleged that Baker suffered a traumatic brain injury from repeated concussions endured during his professional football career. Further, she contends that the NFL and the Rams knew about the dangers of concussions, but did not take proper measures to guard against their long-term effects. Without passing judgment on the merits, the court has determined that these allegations are not fanciful, fantastic, or delusional, such as is required for a finding of frivolity.

“Second, as to maliciousness, a case may be dismissed under 28 U.S.C. § 1915 if it is ‘plainly part of a longstanding pattern of abusive and repetitious lawsuits’ or contains abusive language. See Horsey v. Asher, 741 F.2d 209, 212-13 (8th Cir. 1984); and In re Tyler, 839 F.2d 1290, 1294 (8th Cir. 1988). In this case, there is clearly nothing malicious in the complaint, as there is no indication that it has been filed to harass defendants, or that it is part of a pattern of repetitious lawsuits.

“Finally, as to stating a claim, the Court notes that plaintiff must demonstrate a plausible claim for relief; which is more than a ‘mere possibility of misconduct.’ Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 679. ‘A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.’ Id. at 678.

The court went on to note that “when evaluating whether a self-represented plaintiff has asserted sufficient facts to state a claim, a pro se complaint, however unartfully pleaded, is held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. Jackson v. Nixon, 747 F.3d 537, 541 (8th Cir. 2014).”

“In this case, the plaintiff has alleged that the NFL and the Rams had a duty to protect Baker’s health and well-being, and that they breached this duty by failing to provide proper protocols for dealing with concussions, and by failing to disclose the dangers of head injuries to players. Because of this breach, the plaintiff has alleged that Baker suffered a traumatic brain injury that gave him a seizure disorder, ultimately resulting in his death. The court must accept these facts as true, and make all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor. See Jones v. Douglas Cty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 915 F.3d 498, 499 (8th Cir. 2019). Taking that into consideration, and in light of the plaintiff’s status as a self-represented litigant, the court has determined that the allegations in the complaint are sufficient for purposes of initial review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915.”

Baker v. NFL Inc. et al.; E.D. Mo.; No. 4:21-cv-00157-SNLJ; 8/17/21

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