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The Next Big Class Action: NFL Head Injury Suit Like Case Against Big Tobacco?

Craig McClellan

Did the National Football League know that the vicious hits and knocks to the head its players took was linked to permanent and devastating brain injuries?

A growing number of former NFL players in California and across the nation say it did. At last count, attorneys for more than 2,400 retired players have filed lawsuits that accuse the NFL of negligence and intentional misconduct when dealing with the symptoms of head injuries that players reported. Many individual claims have been consolidated into one suit, as we blogged in June. The NFL consistently denies the allegations.

All employees have the right to a safe workplace, even workers such as football players whose jobs involve dangers such as traumatic brain injuries. The former NFL players' lawsuits, however, are not ordinary claims by ordinary employees. In fact, lawyers and some legal commentators have compared the wave of suits to the claims in the 1990s accusing the tobacco companies of deceiving consumers about the health risks of smoking over decades.

States shared a $206 billion settlement as a result of the litigation against major tobacco companies. But as The Associated Press notes, the comparison to big tobacco may only work on the surface because players involved in the NFL suits face different facts.

For example, trainers are on the sidelines to monitor the health of players. It may be difficult to determine the potential effects of a concussion, particularly a player who may have previous concussions. In addition, the NFL is arguing that the suits should be dismissed because the league's collective bargaining agreement with players preempts the suits under federal law.

The suits involve complex legal arguments that are expected to take a significant amount of time to resolve. Meanwhile, if the suits are anything like the tobacco suits, the number of plaintiffs may continue to grow.

Source: USA Today, " Concussion lawsuits are next big U.S. litigation," 6/30/12.