Pity the University of Missouri-Columbia Athletic Department. With the sad saga of mercurial basketball star Ricky Clemons firmly in its rear-view mirror, another crisis has appeared in the middle of the road.
Last month, the father of football player Aaron O’Neal, who died July 12 after a voluntary workout, sued 14 employees of the department, alleging that they were negligent in recognizing and treating his son’s sudden physical deterioration.
Lonnie O’Neal, who is represented by St. Louis attorney Bob Blitz, filed the complaint in Boone County Circuit Court. One of the plaintiff’s key arguments is that the defendants should have taken his son immediately to the hospital, rather than the athletic training facility across the street from the football stadium. According to the lawsuit, school officials waited too long to call 911, lessening the younger O’Neal’s chance of survival.
“After the drills ended, Aaron O’Neal collapsed on the field in full view of the coaches and trainers present,” according to the lawsuit. “None of the trainers present provided medical attention or checked Aaron O’Neal’s temperature, vital signs or otherwise came to his aid between the time he had collapsed and the time he left the field with the assistance of a teammate.”
In a statement, Blitz said that “the necessity of the suit results from the preposterous denial by University of Missouri officials of any responsibility for Aaron’s demise. What Aaron ultimately died from … is neglect on the part of university officials.”
That said, the plaintiff may face an uphill battle after Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao concluded that O’Neal died of viral meningitis, a rarely fatal disease that affects the fluid surrounding the spinal cord and brain, rather than a heart condition.
“Because of the tremendous swelling we have of the brain,” Rao told the media, “the brain then has no place to go. So it goes into the spinal canal, as a result of which the respiration and the cardiovascular functions (are affected), and that’s how he died.”
A contention can be made that the medical damage was done on the field and that there was little that could have been done after he left the field.
Nevertheless, O’Neal is seeking damages in excess of $350,000, or $25,000 from each of the 14 defendants. Blitz said his client did not name the university as a defendant because it has “sovereign immunity.”
MU Athletic Director Mike Alden, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has expressed confidence that university officials acted appropriately.
“Our general counsel did a really thorough review of that, and I know Dr. Rao and her office did as far as the cause of death was concerned,” Alden said. “In reviewing our student athletes and staff, I’m confident that the general counsel’s office felt that the actions of the people associated with the program were appropriate.”
Columbia attorney Hamp Ford of Ford, Parshall and Baker will represent all of the 14 defendants. In addition to Alden, the other defendants are Head Football Coach Gary Pinkel, Director of Football Operations Mark Alnutt; athletic trainers Rex Sharp, Pat Beckmann, Greg Nagel, Eric McDonnell and Alfred Castillo; and strength and conditioning staffers Pat Ivey, Josh Stoner, Scott Bird, Shannon Turley, Shayne McKenzie and Antwan Floyd.