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NFL Hit with Wrongful Death Lawsuits Over Concussions

2012 February 13

Among the flurry of concussion-related lawsuits filed against the NFL, the families of two former players, Wally Hilgenberg and Pete Duranko, are blaming the NFL for concealing the link between concussions and the disease that eventually killed their husband/father. Both lawsuits were filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, captioned the Estate of Wally Hilgenberg v. NFL and the Estate of Pete Duranko v. NFL.

Sometime after their NFL careers, Hilgenberg and Duranko were diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a potentially deadly disease that some studies suggest may be caused from repeated blows to the head. According to the complaint, “the incidence and mortality of ALS is statistically high in athletes who suffered repeated head trauma.”

Hilgenberg died in 2008 after a “three-year battle with what was then misdiagnosed as ALS.” Similarly, Duranko died in July 2011 after a five-year battle with ALS, according to the complaints.

Following their respective deaths, the families donated vital organs to Boston University School of Medicine, Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. According to the complaints, it was then that the families first learned that the decedents’ previously diagnosed ALS was Chronic Traumatic Encephalomyopathy (CTEM). CTEM, according to the complaint, was the result of multiple concussions while playing in the NFL. (For an informative article on CTEM, ALS, and CTE see here.)

Like the other lawsuits, the plaintiffs allege that the NFL concealed the link between concussions and brain disease.  However, these lawsuits are the first to explicitly accuse the NFL of concealing the relationship between clinically diagnosed ALS and concussions. In addition, the lawsuits include allegations that both Hilgenberg and Duranko were denied benefits under the NFL’s 88 plan. The reasoning, according to the complaints, was that ALS is not an illness covered by the Plan.

The lawsuits assert four counts: concealment, civil conspiracy, negligence, and damages for wrongful death. There are now three wrongful death lawsuits filed against the NFL, and inferring from a paragraph in one of the complaints, likely not the last. The Hilgenberg complaint includes a paragraph that alludes to other former players suffering from ALS: Steve Smith, Orlando Thomas, and the late Eric Scoggins.

Larry Coben from Anapol Schwartz is representing the families of the deceased. Coben is also representing, among others, the Easterling plaintiffs, one of the first concussion-related lawsuits filed against the NFL.

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