A jury ruled Tuesday that the NCAA was not responsible for the death of former USC linebacker Matthew Gee, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for numerous other cases brought against the collegiate athletics governing body.
Gee’s attorneys failed to convince the Los Angeles Superior Court jury that the NCAA failed to protect him from repeated head injuries that led to his death, which the coroner ruled was caused by cardiac arrest, and that acute alcohol and cocaine poisoning contributed to it contributed factors. The jury, deliberating just a day before sentencing, were unconvinced that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) led to Gee’s death or that the NCAA was negligent in not informing Gee of the risks of repeated head injuries.
Gee died in his sleep at the age of 49 at his Simi Valley home on December 31, 2018. Alana Gee, his widow, is seeking $54.8 million in damages for wrongful death and the loss of the company of her husband, based on her husband’s life expectancy.
The case was the first in which a jury ruled whether hits to the head in college football led to CTE and death. A 2018 case in Texas went to court but settled after several days of testimony.
Other cases were settled before the trial, and experts say many more are being prepared by plaintiffs who believe the NCAA should be held accountable for the repeated brain trauma they or family members suffered playing college football.
“We are pleased that after four weeks of reviewing evidence and testimony, the jury overwhelmingly agreed with our position in this case,” said Scott Bearby, NCAA senior vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, in a statement. “The NCAA bore no responsibility for Mr. Gee’s tragic death, nor was the case supported by any medical science linking Mr. Gee’s death to his college football career. We extend our deepest condolences to Mr. Gee’s family.”
A CTE expert, who asked not to be identified, said the Gee ruling “doesn’t mean the door is closed on future cases, but it does mean the bar is raised. . . . There are much more powerful cases out there.”
Gee’s case was complicated by the myriad health issues that NCAA experts said caused or contributed to his poor decline and death.
Testimony revealed that Gee had suffered from severe, untreated high blood pressure since 1991. He also had coronary artery disease leading to cardiac arrest, including documented ventricular arrhythmias. His heart was enlarged. He had advanced liver disease, untreated sleep apnea, and was obese.
Gee suffered from Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome (KTS), a rare congenital malformation involving blood and lymphatic vessels and abnormal growth of soft and bone tissue. KTS is extremely painful and according to witnesses, a few years before his death Gee asked a doctor to cut off his left foot because he could not bear the pain.
Testimonies from Gee’s family and friends showed that as his behavior deteriorated, he went from a loving, stable husband, father, and provider to someone with impaired judgment, aggression, confusion, and depression. The plaintiff’s experts testified that the symptoms were caused by CTE.
The defense countered by describing Gee’s hepatic encephalopathy, a nervous system disorder caused by severe liver disease that produces symptoms similar to those produced by CTE.
“That’s what Mr. Gee had,” NCAA Attorney Will Stute said during closing arguments. “. . . Shortened attention span, bizarre behavior, inappropriate behavior, muscular incoordination. … trembling, slurred speech, difficulty concentrating. … The liver stops working and the brain is full of confusion.”
Mare pointed to Alana Gee’s statement that her husband got better when he was on medication for hepatic encephalopathy.
“CTE is said to be an inexorable degenerative disease. It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Stute. “The fact that he got better is significant because it is not consistent with CTE causing these symptoms.”
Gee played linebacker for USC from 1989 to 1992 and led the team in tackles during his junior and senior seasons. He was pulled from training camp by the Oakland Raiders the following year after signing as an undrafted free agent and did not play in the NFL.
Gee and his future wife met when both were college students, married and settled in Northridge. They had three children and Gee built a successful insurance business. They eventually moved to Simi Valley.
Gee is one of five linebackers on the 1989 USC team to die before the age of 50. The others are Junior Seau, Scott Ross, Alan Wilson and David Webb. Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl pick with the San Diego Chargers, and Ross committed suicide. All presented behavioral and mood symptoms associated with recurrent brain trauma and CTE. However, testimony regarding the death of Gee’s teammates was not admitted during the trial.
No evidence was presented that Gee suffered a concussion at USC — or at any other time. His parents testified that they did not remember him having a concussion while playing youth or high school football. She – and Alana Gee – testified that Matt never said he suffered a concussion while at USC. And before a tryout with the Raiders, Gee filled out a form asking if he had a concussion. He ticked “No”.
The only evidence that Gee suffered concussions was anecdotal. USC linebacker coach Tom Roggeman, who served as a Marine in Korea, has been described as a mentor who enjoyed meeting drills in the field. Former USC teammate Mike Salmon, brother of longtime Angels outfielder Tim Salmon, recalled Gee’s state of mind during practice and games.
“Matt hit like a truck,” Salmon testified. “I’ve seen him come back to the group quite often. You could tell… he wasn’t quite there.”
Stute attempted to distance the NCAA from responsibility for disseminating information about CTE and protocols related to concussion management, claiming that its member schools were responsible — not the governing body. USC was not named as a defendant in Gee’s lawsuit.
Some NCAA witnesses, including former longtime UCLA team doctor James Puffer, denied that concussions lead to CTE. He said he doesn’t think the NCAA, or even school officials, need to make players aware of the risk of developing CTE.
“We don’t know for certain at this time that playing college football irrefutably causes you to develop CTE, or that playing college football can lead to neurodegenerative diseases,” Puffer told the jury.
“The NCAA continues to actively improve player safety in collegiate athletics in its role as an athletic governing body,” Bearby said. “Although the NCAA is not a medical organization, it is at the forefront of funding the largest independent study of the natural history of concussion in sports like football. The NCAA prides itself on its long track record of working to make sport safer in its role as a sports governing body, and will continue to aggressively defend against cases like this one that falsely seek to take advantage of the legal system to unfairly attack the NCAA. “
Gee’s attorneys called several prominent experts, including Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon specialist who is medical director of the National Center for Sports Injury Research and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
Cantu testified that Gee suffered from and eventually died from CTE and that playing college football was a major factor in his death. Gee’s brain was examined by the UNITE Brain Bank at Boston University, which determined he had stage 2 CTE. Four progressive stages of CTE have been identified, with stage 4 being the most severe.
“I believe the CTE was a major factor in his addiction,” Cantu testified. “I believe the CTE was due to the trauma his brain suffered playing football, mostly – not exclusively, but mostly – at the collegiate level. I think the CTE made him unable to cope better with his addiction.”
Cantu pointed out that in October, the National Institute Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), officially publicly acknowledged for the first time that CTE is caused by repetitive traumatic brain injury. Attorneys for Alana Gee estimated that Matt Gee suffered about 6,000 hits during his four-year USC career.
Evidence was presented that the NCAA may have intentionally destroyed documents showing the board knew more about the dangers of repeated head injuries and concussions to football players much earlier than stated. Stephen Casper, professor and expert in traumatic brain injury and concussion, testified that journals produced by the NCAA from 1933 to 1966 are missing from the NCAA publication library and that many of the journals contain articles about what the NCAA has learned about the subject and recommended to limit the damage.
Much of Gee’s expert testimony attempted to establish that for decades the NCAA had information about the adverse effects of concussion that was not conveniently shared with member schools or players. Although the jury ruled that Gee’s death was not the NCAA’s responsibility, some experts believe the case created a basis of alleged negligence on which future cases can rest.
The NCAA would likely use the same experts as in the Gee case, and future plaintiffs would have an idea of their game plan.
NCAA witnesses “will testify the same on a case-by-case basis,” said one expert, who asked not to be identified. “This type of litigation is in its infancy, and while this jury has determined that there is no definite causality, the next one might.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2022-11-22/ncaa-not-responsible-for-death-of-former-usc-linebacker-matt-gee-alana NCAA not responsible for death of ex-USC linebacker Matt Gee