High School Concussion Case Filed Decades Too Late

Mar 25, 2022

By Jeff Birren, Senior Writer

Sports-related concussion cases have received a lot of publicity and this in turn continues to generate more cases.  One such case was filed in the United States Federal Court in Florida.  Plaintiff Maurice Jackson claimed that while playing high school football, he suffered severe blows to his head that caused “disorientation, a ringing sensation, hearing loss, nausea, and vomiting.”   Despite these asserted symptoms, Jackson was allegedly encouraged to continue to play, and, as a result, he has long term brain damage and other symptoms consistent with CTE.  However, Jackson also alleged that this happened in 1990 and 1991, and that his contemporaneous symptoms were “clear” at the time of the injuries.  Jackson finally sued in 2020.  The District Court dismissed the case as untimely.  Recently, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in an unpublished opinion (Jackson v. Scott, Case No. 21-11572, Non-Argument Calendar (“Jackson”) (1-4-22)).

Facts

Jackson “played high school football at several Broward County, Florida high schools” (Id. at 4).  His Complaint alleged that in games and practice he was required “to absorb consistent, sudden, and violent blows to his head.” This caused the symptoms described above, and ultimately “long term brain damage.”  The intervening years were not always kind to Jackson, and “he is currently a prisoner of the state of Florida where he has been continuously incarcerated for the last 16 years.”  Recently he “became aware of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its association with football after reading several news articles and watching television programs on the topic.” 

Jackson filed his Complaint on December 23, 2020 (Jackson v. Scott et al, S.D. Fla.,Case No. 0:20-cv-62656-WPD, (“Jackson v. Scott”), (12-23-20)).  The defendants were “Ken Scott, his high school head coach during his junior and senior years,” the Broward County School Board, “the Florida High School Athletic Association, and several other known and unknown individuals affiliated with the school board and FHSAA.”  He claimed: “the defendants violated his due process right to bodily integrity and showed deliberate indifference to his medical needs” (Jackson, at 4).

In the District Court, Briefly

Jackson filed in forma pauperis and made a motion to proceed that way (Jackson v. Scott, Doc. No. 3).  The Court granted that motion (Id., Doc. #7).  He also made a motion for the court to appoint counsel (Id.,Doc. #4), but that was denied (Id., Doc. #8).  The Court then “screened his complaint under 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2).”  That sectionrequires the District Court “to dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that” it “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” 

The District Court determined “that because Jackson sued under Section 1983, his claims were subject to a four-year statute of limitations borrowed from Florida tort law.”  It held that the claims “accrued in 1991, the date of the latest incident forming the basis of his complaint.”  The Court “concluded that the statute of limitations began to run at that time, that it had clearly expired, and that Jackson had therefore failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted” (Jackson, at 4).  The District Court dismissed the case on March 10, 2021 (Jackson v. Scott, Doc. #9), before the defendants made an appearance in the case.  Jackson filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment (Id., Doc. #10, (4-5-21)), that was denied (Id., Doc. #11 (4-20-21)).  Jackson promptly filed his Notice of Appeal (Id., Doc. #12, (5-5-21)). 

In The Eleventh Circuit

Jackson proceeded “pro se” (Jackson, at 4).  He appealed both the dismissal of his Complaint and the denial of his motion to alter or amend the judgment (Jackson, at 5).  The Circuit first took up the dismissal of the Complaint.  Jackson argued that his claims were timely because CTE “is a ‘degenerative disease’ that ‘may not manifest to any medically detectable degree for many years.’  We disagree.” 

The appellate court reviews a “dismissal de novo and takes all allegations in the complaint as true.”  However, the District Court may dismiss the complaint “if it is apparent from the face of the complaint that the applicable statute of limitations bars the claim.”  Such a dismissal is reviewed de novo.  The statute of limitations for “Section 1983 claims is borrowed from the forum state’s residual personal injury statute of limitations, which in Florida is four years.”  The statute begins to run “when ‘the facts which would support a cause of action are apparent or should be apparent to a person with a reasonably prudent regard for his rights …. This requires only that the plaintiff know or should know (1) that he has suffered an injury that forms the basis of his action and (2) who has inflicted the injury” (Id.).

The Court held that the District Court “did not err in dismissing Jackson’s Section 1983 claims as untimely.”  “According to his own allegations, symptoms from the injuries forming the basis of his action were ‘clear’ when the injuries occurred.”  Moreover, the injuries “were so obvious that a television reporter approached the sideline during the 1991 game concerned about Jackson’s ‘apparent and visibly injured condition.’”  Jackson’s argument that “his coaches showed deliberate indifference is premised on the allegation” that the injuries were “obvious” and “significant.”  He also “knew the identities of the individuals that allegedly inflicted his injuries by urging him to continue playing in the game.”  Thus, the facts “that he now relies on to support his Section 1983 action were apparent to him in 1991” and that is “when his cause of action accrued and when the statute of limitations began to run.”  Approximately “twenty-nine years passed between the time his cause of action accrued and when Jackson filed his complaint” (Id. at 6).  The claims were therefore untimely, and the Circuit affirmed the dismissal.

Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment

The denial of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e) motion is reviewed for abuse of discretion, and it will be affirmed unless the District Court “has made a clear error of judgment or applied the wrong legal standard.”  The motion “may only be granted on the grounds of newly discovered evidence or manifest errors of law or fact.”  It “may not be used to relitigate old matters or to raise arguments that could have been raised prior to the judgment.”

The Circuit held that the District Court “did not abuse its discretion” in denying the motion.  Jackson failed to show that the court below “made a clear error of judgment or applied the wrong standard in dismissing his Section 1983 claims as untimely.”  He may have recently “learned of additional long-term consequences of his football injuries” but he had alleged “that his injuries were apparent to him and others in 1991.”  Finally, because the District Court “dismissed all of the Section 1983 claims over which it had jurisdiction, it did not err by declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any remaining state constitutional claims.” 

Conclusion

Jackson can file a motion for certiorari in the Supreme Court, where the odds will be daunting.  He can also contemplate trying to file his “state constitutional claims” in the appropriate state court.  Athletes have endured concussions since sports began but it is only in recent decades that the severity of the problems have come into focus.  Nevertheless, many athletes knew at the time that they had concussion-related injuries, and Jackson holds that is when the statute of limitations begins.  For those wishing to file such decades-old claims, Jackson should be considered when writing the complaint, and counsel will have to contend with its reasoning when opposing a motion to dismiss or summary judgment.  Time and tide wait for no one, and so it can be with the statute of limitations.