Football season is well underway, renewing the hopes and dreams of fans across the country that perhaps this year will be the year their team wins it all. Yet, for many, football is not merely a spectator sport. Rather, for hundreds of thousands of youngsters, the opening of the NFL season also signifies the start of their local Pop Warner football league. Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. is the nation’s largest youth football league, with programs in 42 states. Despite the football frenzy that this time of year tends to bring, Pop Warner is far less enthusiastic given the rush of litigation it has faced over the course of the past year arising out of claims that children sustained head injuries while playing the sport. In fact, just last week, Pop Warner was named in a putative class action filed in California, wherein plaintiffs allege that the league failed to inform players and their parents about the safety risks involved in tackle football, failed to implement league-wide guidelines regarding the treatment of players who sustain head injuries, and failed to provide helmets adequately designed to protect children from such injuries. See Kimberly Archie v. Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc. et al., No. 2:16-cv-06603 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 1, 2016).
The putative class asserts claims against Pop Warner, as well as USA Football, the national governing body for youth football in the United States, and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (collectively, “Defendants). Of note, USA Football is the youth football division of the NFL, which is certainly no stranger to concussion litigation. The named plaintiffs are Kimberly Archie and Jo Cornell, California residents whose deceased sons participated in Pop Warner football leagues. According to the Complaint, after their deaths, it was discovered that both boys had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which caused a variety of behavioral and mental health issues for both. Id. at ¶27-28. The putative class consists of two groups: (1) “The Participant Class” – all persons who played Pop Warner from 1997 to present and who have suffered brain injuries, damage or diseases; and (2) “The Adult Class” – all persons who enrolled their minor children in Pop Warner football between 1997 to present. Id. at ¶36.
The Complaint alleges that Pop Warner failed to adequately train its coaches or provide competent information to the class members regarding brain injuries and their recognition, prevention, symptoms, and treatment. Id. at ¶64. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants “failed to create and implement league-wide guidelines concerning the treatment and monitoring of players who suffer a brain injury during a practice or a game” and that the Defendants failed to “establish equipment standards that are designed and serve to protect minor children who participate in Defendants tackle football program.” Id. at ¶52. In addition, plaintiffs claim that the Defendants knowingly concealed the health and safety risks to children who sustain repeated head injuries while playing tackle football and misrepresented that “hard shell helmets” were safe for young players (the helmets apparently contain a sticker stating that it “meets NOCSEA standard,” without disclosing the fact that National Operating Committee on Standards Athletic Equipment (“NOCSEA”) concedes that there are no youth specific helmet safety standards. Id. at ¶¶7, 8, 91.
The fact that this class action and other similar suits against Pop Warner arise out of head injuries sustained by children differentiates these lawsuits from prior suits brought against the NFL and other professional entities. For instance, here, the plaintiffs argue that because Pop Warner’s programs are geared towards children ages 5-16, the Defendants “voluntary assumed a duty to protect the health and safety of its minor participants through the introduction of equipment such as hard-shell helmets and implementation of rules, policies and regulations.” Id. at ¶48. In addition to failing to satisfy the duty they allegedly voluntarily assumed, according to plaintiffs, Pop Warner also carried out unlawful and deceptive business practices by engaging in “systemic marketing and deception” through its advertising stating that the league “provided a safe environment for children.” Id. at ¶122.
Although the NFL, as well as colleges and universities, have been facing football-induced concussion related lawsuits for years, it is now apparent that youth tackle football leagues, such as Pop Warner, represent a new front in this constantly growing legal arena. We will continue to monitor the developments in this lawsuit, as well any similar suits that are likely to follow.