Plaintiff lawyer welcomes appeal in UCF trial

The attorney for the family of a University of Central Florida

football player who was awarded a $10 million wrongful death

judgment said Friday that he welcomes the university’s plans for

appeal.

Steven Yerrid served as the lead attorney representing

18-year-old Ereck Plancher’s family and said the verdict by the

jury after a 14-day civil trial will serve as a signal to the

college athletic community at-large, that the care of athletes

should be put before winning on the playing field.

The two-year legal saga that followed the preseason workout

death of Plancher three years ago ended late Thursday night when a

jury found the UCF Athletic Association negligent in his death.

Plancher died after a March 2008 workout.

”Our goal was to make a difference so other parents don’t have

to suffer a horrific experience of burying a child,” Yerrid said.

”It speaks to bigger issue that winning is important, but the

welfare of the athlete always has to come first. In most cases that

is true in college athletics. But for those where it’s not the

case, it’s a wake-up call.”

Enock and Gisele Plancher declined to comment.

UCF spokesman Grant Heston said that the school will appeal

Thursday night’s judgment and believes ”the appeals court will

side with us.”

”The jury’s decision to not allow gross negligence and punitive

damages is a vindication of the actions and reputations of our

athletics leadership,” Heston said Friday. ”The allegations about

water and trainers being withheld during the workout were proved to

be baseless during the trial. The leadership of our athletics

department continues to have the university’s confidence.”

Plancher collapsed and died following conditioning drills at the

school’s football complex in March 2008. Orange County medical

examiner Joshua Stephany and three experts hired by Plancher family

attorneys testified he died from complications of sickle cell

trait. Plancher is one of more than 20 college football players to

die since 2000 in offseason conditioning workouts.

The jurors in civil trial found the UCF Athletic Association was

negligent and failed to do everything possible to save Plancher’s

life. It entered the amount of damages it believed should be

awarded to Plancher’s parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher. The total

was $5 million apiece.

But the jury also decided there was no ”clear and convincing

evidence” that UCF’s athletic association was guilty of gross

negligence and determined it should not face punitive damages.

The Plancher family filed their wrongful death lawsuit against

UCF in March 2009. When the trial began last month, their attorneys

presented evidence during from four former UCF football players,

including a former team captain, who all recalled a strenuous

workout than UCF coaches and school officials originally said took

place. The players also testified that Plancher was struggling

throughout, gasping for breath at times.

They also alleged that no water or trainers were present during

what one of the players said was a ”punishment” workout for

players coming back from spring vacation out of shape. They also

accused coach George O’Leary of cursing Plancher shortly before he

collapsed and had to be carried outside by teammates.

UCF officials contended from the day that Plancher died in 2008

that the school did everything necessary to save his life. During

their case they had players that were at the workout testify that

water was available to players and argued that Plancher knew he had

sickle cell trait and that it was actually a heart ailment that

caused his death.

O’Leary and athletic director Keith Tribble originally said that

the workout last 10 minutes in duration and that Plancher never was

seen struggling. They amended those statements to say the workout

lasted longer, but O’Leary testified during UCF’s case that he only

saw Plancher fall once at the end of a sprint, but never saw him in

distress.

UCF’s athletic department is insured by a $21 million policy,

but it is unclear whether their insurance company would cover the

judgment. Judge Robert Evans ruled early in the case that UCF’s

athletic department was private and not under the umbrella of the

university as a protected state agency. Under Florida statutes,

state entities are only liable for up to $200,000 in civil

judgments.

Yerrid said prior to the start of the trial they filed a $4.5

million settlement offer to UCF that got no response. Florida law

says that if an eventual judgment exceeds any settlement offer by

125 percent, the defendant is responsible for all court costs and

attorney fees.

Yerrid estimated their costs for representing the Plancher

family is at least $500,000 and that they are do another $1.5

million in fees on top of that UCF is responsible for now.

”It’s not a winning strategy that they have employed,” Yerrid

said. ”At some point they have to understand reforming their

conduct is more important that refusing to lose.

”And by the way, they haven’t been right on anything yet. So

they are batting zero. I’m very confident they will continue to bat

zero. We had an excellent, experienced trial judge. I’m confident

that his rulings will be upheld.”

Yerrid said the ruling is a win across the board for college

athletes.

”We’re pleased the system works and will have a beneficial

effect across the world of college athletics, not just in

football,” he said. ”The emphasis will be not just sickle cell

trait, but spread to other athletes. But if an athlete has a

condition that can be detrimental, it’s our hope that it will be

guarded for athletes at all levels of participation.”