By Joseph Hanna, of Goldberg Segalla
On January 4th, 2019, Jennifer Bradley, former field hockey player at American University, argued against the University’s motion for summary judgment, contending that the motion contains identical arguments to a motion that has already been denied. Bradley’s most recent argument follows a string of complicated procedural obstacles she has faced since the commencement of lawsuit.
The suit stems from an incident in 2011, when Bradley was a junior at American University, where she played NCAA Division I field hockey. During a match against Richmond University, Bradley was hit in the head with a field hockey stick. Subsequent to the game, she states that she began experiencing concussion symptoms. She reached out to her coaches and team training staff to express concern about her symptoms, documenting such communications in emails. Bradley claims that, despite her voiced concerns, the coaches and training staff cleared her to play in practices and games. Bradley’s complaint, filed in August 2014, alleges that the school’s negligence in its failure to properly diagnose her concussions and failure to implement safeguards for her return to the field exacerbated her injury, leading to a diagnosis of permanent post-concussion syndrome. She states in her complaint that American University and related defendants (including the NCAA) are liable for her head injury, the severity of which required her to withdraw from the remainder of the school year due to complications of headaches, fatigue, vertigo, and difficulty concentrating.
In October 2014, the former athlete filed additional medical malpractice lawsuits against the various healthcare providers from the Maryland Sports Medicine Center who she alleges provided inadequate care post-injury. One provider, Dr. Anthony Williams, was a U.S. Army doctor practicing under American University’s head athletic trainer at the time of the incident. In April 2015, once all parties and claims were before the court, the multiple defendants moved for dismissal, claiming among their arguments that Bradley waived her right to bring a negligence claim by signing a release acknowledging the risks of playing D1 field hockey. Alternatively, they argued that Bradley’s voluntary participation in the sport constituted her assumption of the risks inherent to the sport. The defendants further supported their cause for dismissal by arguing Bradley’s contributory negligence in delaying a week before communicating her injury to the coaches and training staff. In a dramatic procedural twist, the United States government decided that Dr. Williams, the U.S. Army doctor, would be deemed a federal employee acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the treatment in question. Thus, before the court could rule upon the defendants’ motions to dismiss, the matter was removed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Once the case reached the District Court, the matter was briefly remanded to the Superior Court of the District Columbia, due to additional hurdles facing plaintiffs suing the federal government. For example, Bradley did not satisfy Form 95’s notice requirement, which delays a lawsuit against the government until six months after the government receives notice. In November 2014, after the required six months had passed, Bradley filed another amended complaint in the Superior Court, adding the United States as a defendant. In February 2016, the case was removed back to the Federal Court to rule on the same motions to dismiss presented back in April 2015.
After the multiple procedural obstacles, in April 2017, the Federal Court issued its opinion on all of the pending motions. The Court determined that Bradley could pursue her negligence claims against the NCAA and American University, as well as her claims of medical malpractice against the healthcare providers and the University. Additionally, the Court determined that Bradley demonstrated her good faith to protect her claim against Dr. Williams and, by extension, the United States government, thus determining that the statute of limitations had been tolled, rendering her claim against the United States timely filed. Therefore, Bradley could continue in her action.
Nevertheless, the University and the medical defendants jointly filed for summary judgment, contesting any duty owed to Bradley, bringing us to her most recent arguments in January 2019. Bradley responded to the motion by claiming that it failed to tread upon new ground, and only mirrored the same arguments denied in April 2017 in the defendants’ unsuccessful motions to dismiss. She added that she has provided “ample evidence” to establish the defendants’ duty owed to her.
Bradley’s lawsuit adds to a growing number of concussion suits facing the NCAA and professional sports organizations, as athletes continue to bring claims for injuries inflicted on the field. Courts’ decisions will be watched closely by athletes and legal analysts alike as the pending case law paves the way for modern precedent.