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Riddell Helmets Hit with $3.1 Million Verdict

2013 April 14

A jury’s verdict in Colorado may end up sending shockwaves throughout the sports-manufacturing industry, and the “booming business of concussions.”

Riddell Helmets was found liable on a failure to warn claim asserted by the family of Rhett Ridolfi, according to The New York Times.

The facts are sketchy and the legal theories are a bit blurred; without the benefit of reviewing the pleadings, this is what can be gleaned from various news accounts.

In 2008, Rhett Ridolfi was participating in a “Machine Gun Drill” where he sustained a concussion. After complaining about headaches, his coaches allegedly ignored Ridolfi’s plea for help and allowed him to return to practice later that afternoon.

Ridolfi subsequently collapsed and required emergency surgery to reduce swelling and bleeding of the brain.

Ridolfi’s medical expenses were more than $3.2 million, and he now walks with a brace, is limited in body function and has impulse and behavioral problems, according to Trinidad News.

After a nine-and-a-half day trial, the jury awarded $11.5 million in damages, which Riddell is responsible for $3.1 million.

It’s unclear if the other defendants – Trinidad High School and coaches – are on the hook for the remaining portion of damages.

Ridolfi’s attorney claimed that the re-furbished helmet was defective — pointing to the padding on the front of the helmet –, and also that Riddell failed to inform Ridolfi about the risk of concussion.

Riddell recently defeated a similar product defect case, so it was probably confident it could do the same here.

The jury, indeed, rejected the manufacturing/design-defect claim, but it found the failure to warn claim compelling – it’s unclear if a negligence or strict liability theory, or both, were asserted.

In order to succeed on a failure to warn claim, a plaintiff has to convince the jury, among other things, that the product was unreasonably dangerous because of (1) a lack of a warning or (2) the warning was deficient.

The determinative issue is whether “the information accompanying the product effectively communicates to the consumer or user the dangers that inhere in the product during normal use and the dangerous consequences that can or will result from misuse or abnormal use of the product.” See, American Law of Products Liability.

Although Riddell has had a warning label on its helmets since 2002, this warning apparently was insufficient.

The jury found that Riddell failed to warn Ridolfi about the risk of concussion.

This is a reasonable conclusion, since the majority of the public likely believes that a helmet can prevent concussions. Without an explicit warning — like the one currently used by Riddell — consumers are likely led to believe that the helmet has the ability to prevent or reduce concussions.

At the time of the accident, Riddell did not have its new warning label on the helmet, which explicitly states:

“Contact in football may result in CONCUSSION-BRAIN INJURY which no helmet can prevent…Do not return to a game or practice until all symptoms are gone.”

Darren Heitner has analyzed the impact of this new warning label, and whether it can be used to prove fault on behalf of the defendant. As a general rule, subsequent remedial measures are not admissible to prove a need for a better warning. See Rule 407 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.

In any event, the jury found that Riddell failed to adequately warn Ridolfi that the helmet couldn’t prevent concussion-brain injury, and perhaps that a player should not return to a game or practice until he is asymptomatic.

Although this verdict appears to be an anomaly, it could indicate that juries are placing more responsibility on manufacturers to explicitly warn about the limitations of helmets. In addition, judges may be more willing to allow a jury to decide whether a warning would be heeded, as opposed to deciding the case summarily on the papers.

The verdict will be appealed, and you can guarantee a handful of helmet manufacturers and probably the Chamber of Commerce will file amicus briefs in support of overturning the verdict.

Riddell’s spokesman told The New York Times, “We are confident that the jury would have reached a different conclusion had the Court not erroneously excluded the testimony of our warnings expert.

“We intend to appeal this verdict, and we remain steadfast in our belief that Riddell designs and manufactures the most protective football headgear for the athlete.”

Although Riddell has faired pretty well in cases involving helmet defects and failure to warn claims, (But see, Korey Stringer – failure to warn claim relating to heat strokes.) this case could set a costly precedent for helmet manufacturers and snake-oil peddlers.

According to The New York Times, a similar case is set for trial in Los Angeles. If Riddell is blindsided by another verdict, it could spell trouble for Riddell in the NFL Concussion Litigation and beyond.


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