Court Hands SEC a Victory in Litigation Involving Concussion Safety Protocols

Nov 17, 2023

In multidistrict litigation (MDL), a federal judge from the Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed the claims brought by former student athletes, who alleged that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) failed to adopt and implement adequate concussion treatment, concussion management safety protocols, and return-to-play guidelines.

“The presiding federal judge ruled that the originating courts in all eight cases lacked personal jurisdiction over the SEC and denied plaintiffs’ request to transfer the cases to a venue that would have jurisdiction, explaining that a MDL court does not have that transfer authority,” according to Robinson Bradshaw attorneys’ statement by Robert W. Fuller, Stephen M. Cox, and Richard C. Worf, who represented the SEC in this case.

By way of background, the plaintiffs alleged that they all suffered “repetitive concussive and

subconcussive hits … during their time as student-athletes.”

Because of the SEC’s “failed” concussion protocols, the plaintiffs “were quickly put back into games and practices or were dismissed to recuperate on their own without medical care despite their injuries.” The plaintiffs alleged that “the SEC knew at the time that such treatment, protocols, and guidelines were necessary to monitor, manage, and mitigate the risks associated with head injuries. As a result of the alleged failures, the plaintiffs claim that they “now suffer from severe daily headaches, memory loss, dizziness, and other debilitating symptoms.”

The SEC has denied all allegations.

The plaintiffs pointed out that the SEC “is required to abide by the NCAA Constitution, which states that their primary principle is to ensure that ‘intercollegiate athletics programs shall be conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student athletes.’ To accomplish this purpose, the NCAA has promulgated and implemented certain regulations and requirements for its sports, such as the NCAA Constitution, Operating Bylaws, and Administrative Bylaws, which provide detailed instructions on game and practice rules pertaining to player well-being and safety.” 

As is often cited in these cases, the plaintiffs also noted that the NCAA publishes “a Sports

Medicine Handbook, which it updates every year. The Handbook includes official policies for the treatment and prevention of sport-related injuries, as well as return-to-play guidelines.”

Further, the NCAA “began conducting its own concussion-related studies in 2003, one of which concluded that football players who had previously sustained a concussion were more likely to have future concussion-related injuries.

“Another NCAA study found that collegiate football players may require several days to recover from a concussion.

“Plaintiffs claim that the SEC was in a better position than they were to know of and mitigate the risks of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries, and that the SEC has known of the harmful effects of concussions and subconcussive impacts for decades, the plaintiffs allege the SEC actively concealed these facts from student-athletes and the public. The SEC failed to adopt meaningful concussion management and return-to-play protocols until 2010.”

Based on these assertions, the plaintiffs lodged state common law claims of negligence, fraudulent concealment, breach of implied contract, breach of express contract, and unjust enrichment against the SEC.

Of significance in the instant case, the court previously dismissed all claims brought by sample-case plaintiff, Jamie Richardson, against the SEC because the conference was not subject to personal jurisdiction in Indiana. Richardson v. Se. Conference, 612 F.Supp.3d 753 (N.D. Ill.

2020). Without opposition from Richardson, that court entered final judgment in the case.

A summary of that decision is available here:

Not surprisingly, the SEC moved to dismiss the eight additional cases for lack of personal jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) and to enter final judgment dismissing the SEC from each case under Rule 54(b). 

The SEC’s central argument was that four of the eight cases have fact patterns identical to Richardson and the other four have minor factual differences from Richardson that do not affect the jurisdictional analysis. 

In response to the SEC’s motion, the burden shifted to the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the court had personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

In its analysis, the court noted that “the transferee judge has all the jurisdiction and powers over pretrial proceedings in the actions transferred to him that the transferor judge would have had in the absence of transfer.” In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prod. Liab. Litig. Coord. Pretrial Proceedings, 136 F.Supp.3d 968, 973 (N.D. Ill. 2015) (quoting In re FMC Corp. Patent Litig., 422 F.Supp. 1163, 1165 (J.P.M.L. 1976)). 

The cases at issue here were transferred by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to the Northern District of Illinois from the Southern District of Indiana and the Eastern District of California. The jurisdictional analyses under Indiana law, California law, and federal due process are all the same, according to the court.

It noted that there are two types of personal jurisdiction: general and specific. Specific personal jurisdiction applies here. Further, personal jurisdiction “is appropriate where (1) the defendant has purposefully directed his activities at the forum state or purposefully availed himself of the privilege of conducting business in that state, and (2) the alleged injury arises out of the defendant’s forum-related activities. Tamburo v. Dworkin, 601 F.3d 693, 702 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472 (1985)).

“To be subject to specific jurisdiction, a defendant need only have sufficient “minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’” Int’l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (quoting Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 463 (1940)).”

Further, “Jurisdiction is proper … where the contacts proximately result from actions by the defendant himself that create a substantial connection with the forum State.” Burger King, 471 U.S. at 475 (quotation omitted). Courts look to the defendant’s “conduct and connection with the forum State” to determine if he should “reasonably anticipate being hauled into court there.” World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980) (citation omitted).

The court first examined Hermann’s claim, finding for the SEC that it had no contacts in 

California, “let alone any related to Hermann’s claims.” Thus, the SEC “cannot be subject to specific personal jurisdiction in California.”

Regarding the Davison, Miller, and Calleja claims, the court found that the plaintiffs alleged “nearly identical facts to those alleged in Richardson.” Like Richardson, all three played college football for SEC member institutions before the NCAA moved to Indiana and never played college football in Indiana. Thus, the court dismissed their claims.

The Bozeman, Williams, Owens, and Ford claims were a little more interesting. The plaintiffs argued that the SEC was subject to Indiana jurisdiction for three reasons. 

“First, the SEC’s misconduct allegedly occurred in significant part in Indiana where the SEC participated in shaping NCAA rules and regulations on health and safety in collegiate football after the NCAA moved its headquarters to Indiana in 2000. 

“Second, the SEC purposefully availed itself of Indiana by aiming television broadcasting at the


“And third, Owens and Ford played at least one football game in Indiana as student-athletes. 

“Despite these plaintiffs’ attempts to argue that these additional contacts in their cases establish specific jurisdiction, these minor factual differences do not materially distinguish their cases from Richardson,” the court concluded.

Regarding the plaintiffs’ motion to transfer, the court wrote that it did not “have the authority to

transfer a consolidated case.”

Further, the federal judge wrote, “even if I were able to transfer the cases, transfer is only warranted if it is in the interest of justice. The plaintiffs argue that it is in the interest of justice to transfer the cases because there is a risk that the plaintiffs’ claims will be time barred if dismissed and then re-filed in appropriate jurisdictions.” Yet, the court decided to dismiss these claims.

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