The Carolina Panthers have been in the news for a week now over the health of a player taking a blow to the head.
While the illegal hits on Cam Newton resulted in two fines this week against the Denver Broncos, it is a lesser known player that could have the most lasting effect on sports medicine.
Medical and legal journals are taking note of a lawsuit involving a former Panther and Lloyd’s of London over failure to pay out for a career-ending concussion.
Safety Haruki Nakamura is best known for giving up a 59-yard pass play to Roddy White when QB Matt Ryan was standing in his own end zone, letting the Falcons kick a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
A four-year reserve with the Ravens, Nakamura started 13 games in his first year with Carolina in 2012. During the last preseason game in 2013, he was making a tackle against the Steelers when he suffered a concussion and never played another down in the NFL.
Nakamura was given an injury release, and the Panthers went with a defensive backfield of Mike Mitchell and Quinten Mikell.
More than a year later, according to legal documents filed by the player, Dr. Michael Collins, wrote an “Attending Physicians Report” stating that Nakamura had been permanently disabled from August 29, 2013, through October 2014 and that, “Nakamura is permanently disabled and likely has no hope of improvement sufficient to participate ever again as a professional football player.”
The NFL concurred with the physician’s report and awarded him monthly benefits.
Nakamura was under contract for 2013 for $815,000, but only a $65,000 signing bonus was guaranteed. Worried about the potential for injury, the safety signed an insurance policy with the famous Lloyd’s of London. The player paid in premiums of $17,000 over 2012-13, according to his lawyers, with a payout amount of $1 million.
The insurance company, however, has failed to write the check.
Lloyd’s brought in its own medical examiner who found, “Nakamura is able to participate in his occupation of professional football player.” The insurer’s examiner further stated that “whether to return to previous career is a deliberate decision he would have to take based on several considerations including probable long-term effects of repetitive concussions, both past and future.”
Nakamura claims that he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome by a concussion expert at the University of Pittsburgh. Nakamura, who now lives in Mooresville with his wife and two kids, said he still suffers from headaches, vision problems, fatigue, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Lawyers, John W. Schryber and Julie L. Hammerman, who specialize in insurance policies for athletes, said they have never had an insurer reject a policy after a doctor or the NFL judged a client to have a career-ending injury. But, this is the first concussion claim they have filed under coverage for bodily injuries.
“And now they’re denying coverage altogether,” Schryber said in July.
Nakamura and his legal team filed a lawsuit against Lloyd’s in July. The move received a smattering of attention in the sports world, but the legal profession is taking notice.
The lawsuit could become a test case for insurers dealing with the emerging fallout from sports concussions and head trauma claims.
Mikaela Whitman, a partner in Liner LLP’s Insurance Recovery Group, wrote in an article for legal website www.insidecounsel.com where she says this case could be very important because it could set a legal precedent that would be followed for years to come.
“Courts have not determined if this standard applies to athlete disability policies and, if so, what it would mean for a professional athlete to be unable to perform the ‘material’ or ‘substantial’ duties of his or her occupation. The Nakamura lawsuit could be the first of its kind to consider what it means for a professional football player to be ‘permanently disabled’ such that he or she cannot return to their occupation.”
Even if Nakamura loses the lawsuit, the former player could still be eligible for compensation from the NFL itself.
The league has a planned $1 billion court settlement, which could roll out within the next year, designed to cover retired players who suffered brain trauma.
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