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Court Revives NFL Players' Suit Over Painkillers

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 10, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit that alleges the NFL gave players painkillers to make them play hurt, often causing long-term injuries.

In Dent v. National Football League, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court that had dismissed the case. The appeals panel said the NFL had a duty to comply with the law when handing out pain medications.

The ruling opens the door to more than 1,000 retired athletes. For them, it's a whole new ball game.

Unprescribed Drugs

Richard Dent, the lead plaintiff and NFL Hall of Famer, sued in 2014. He alleges team doctors doled out unprescribed drugs without warning players about harmful side effects.

He played from 1983 to 1997, ending his career with an enlarged heart, permanent nerve damage, and an addiction to painkillers. In the class action, he blames the league for those injuries.

Judge William Alsup dismissed the lawsuit, saying the claims had to go through arbitration. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

"If the NFL had any role in distributing prescription drugs, it was required to follow the laws regarding those drugs," Judge Richard Tallman wrote for the appeals court.

Collective Bargaining Agreement

Tallman said the players' claims fall outside the league's collective bargaining agreement. Their complaint has nothing to do with player contracts, endorsements, or related issues.

"Whether the NFL breached its duty to handle drugs with reasonable care can be determined by comparing the conduct of the NFL to the requirements of the statutes at issue," Tallman wrote.

The labor agreements mention teams' duty to retain certified doctors and trainers, and to provide medical care to players. But they do not address the league's obligations to players, the appeals court said.

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