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HomeMedico-LegalBrain-injured rugby players lodge class action against global unions

Brain-injured rugby players lodge class action against global unions

Former Wales rugby captain Ryan Jones last week announced he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable CTE – the latest of many former rugby players to have been affected by neurological impairments such as early onset dementia, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease.

Nearly 200 former rugby players are taking legal action against World Rugby and the national governing bodies of England and Wales over what they say was a failure to protect them from permanent injury caused by repeated concussions during their careers, reports the New Zealand Herald.

They include former internationals Steve Thompson (England), Carl Hayman (New Zealand) and Alix Popham (Wales), all of whom are suffering from neurological impairments such as early onset dementia, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease.

The group is represented by Rylands Legal, which says it is in contact with more than 185 former rugby union players. The firm says the class action is being issued on behalf of the majority of those players, with the rest taking legal action soon, and is the biggest class action of its kind outside the United States.

Rylands Legal said it also represents 75 rugby league players as part of a separate but similar potential claim against England’s Rugby Football League.

“This claim isn’t just about financial compensation,” the company said in a statement. “It is also about making the game safer and ensuring current and former players get tested so that if they are suffering from a brain injury, they can get the clinical help they need.”

In 2013, the National Football League (NFL) settled lawsuits from thousands of former players who developed dementia or other concussion-related health problems they say were caused by the very on-field clashes that fuelled the game's rise to popularity and profit. The NFL has paid out more than $800m to date and is expected to cost it $1bn.

The settlement spared the league a trial over claims that it long hid what it knew about the link between concussions and brain injuries. The settlement fund is designed to cover more than 20,000 retirees suffering from brain disorders that include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. The settlement did not include an admission from the NFL that it hid information from players about head injuries.

In the rugby case, the allegations raised by the players include the failure of the governing bodies to “take proper steps as the game turned professional to respond to a disregard for player safety and brain health at the club and international level”.

It is claimed the rugby bodies did not educate the players about the risks of permanent brain damage or subject them to regular monitoring, and did not seek expert medical advice about the issue.

Rugby Union has been warned it must change to protect its players “otherwise the sport will die” after the legal proceedings were launched against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union.

Telegraph Sport said the lawsuit was due to be filed at court on Monday on behalf of a group of professional and semi- professional players including as part of the biggest class action lawsuit outside of the United States.

One of the former players Alix Popham, who was diagnosed with early onset dementia aged just 40, has urged governing bodies to take immediate action to protect players from debilitating brain injuries after claiming they were negligent for failing to protect players.

The proceedings issued to the court by Rylands Law, representing the players, include:

  • Players ranging from as young as their 20s to their 60s
  • Another 50 players are going through testing or waiting for results, with around two joining the legal proceedings every week.
Fears players will take their own lives if not supported
Female players are now confirmed as part of the claimants.

As many as “a few dozen” amateur rugby players are also involved.

Fears include how the NHS will cope with taking care of high numbers of retired professional athletes in middle age suffering from early onset dementia

Twenty players contacted brain charity Head For Change after former Wales captain Ryan Jones revealed last week that he is suffering from early onset dementia, aged 41.

Health conditions among the group of claimants range from those suffering with more extreme cases of Motor Neurone Disease, Parkinson’s and probably moderate Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), with the latter only confirmed following post-mortem.

The least extreme cases include players suffering from mild post-concussion syndrome, which can last for weeks, months or longer, while others in between suffer from epilepsy and the start of progressive neurodegenerative disease such as early onset dementia.

Symptoms include chronic depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, aggression, addiction to alcohol and drugs as a result of their brain injuries, and a worsening memory and inability to concentrate.

“It’s all pretty grim, to be honest, and quite consistent across the board,” said Richard Boardman, of Rylands Law.

“From our point of view, the ideal outcome is to get damages for the players and their young families to make sure they are looked after, and then ensure they have that clinical support in place. At the moment there is a considerable vacuum once a player has been diagnosed.

“The poor NHS is not set up for hundreds if not thousands of otherwise fit sportsmen in their 30s and 40s with dementia, in terms of how to deal with them.

“We’re trying to work with foundations and charities and some kind clinicians who are helping us to ensure we catch particularly the guys in the worst conditions, because they are in a bad way and they do need support. We don’t want any of them to kill themselves.

“For this great sport to continue for another 100 years-plus, we have to accept that the brain is a delicate organ which needs heightened protection, and as a sport we have to err on the side of caution. Otherwise all brains, no matter what level you play at, are going to be impacted.”

Popham, now 42, won 33 caps for Wales but was diagnosed with early onset dementia 10 years after his retirement, when doctors estimated his brain had suffered up to 100,000 sub-concussions during 14 years of playing professionally. He now runs the brain charity Head For Change.

“There have been cases where I have spoken to relatives of players who have taken their lives because of this,” Popham told Telegraph Sport, citing Wales’ recent intense training sessions before their tour of South Africa as an example of how player welfare can improve.

“Rugby really needs to be reset and needs to be Rugby 2.0. The seasons need to be half what they are,” Popham added.

“There is a hell of a lot of evidence that contact sport has caused damage to players’ brains. It’s a terrible image for the sport, for mums and dads who are thinking of sending their kids to rugby, and a huge amount that needs to be changed to make it as safe as possible.

“We just need to draw a line in the sand with what has gone wrong. I’d have more respect for [World Rugby, RFU, WRU] if they put their hand up and said ‘yep, we made a mistake and here’s what we are going to do now’. Because otherwise the sport will die. And we don’t want that.”

Progressive Rugby, the rugby union lobby group, also announced on Monday that they were in the process of “finalising a comprehensive list of player welfare critical requirements which will be submitted to World Rugby”.

“We believe delay is no longer an option and that radical action must be taken as a matter of urgency to ensure rugby union’s reputation isn't damaged beyond repair,” the group added. Those proposed changes include a mandatory limit on contact in training, improving pitchside diagnostic tools, reducing the number of non-injury substitutions, and extending the return-to-play for a concussion.

World Rugby, the RFU and WRU responded by saying: “We care deeply about all our players, including former players, and never stand still when it comes to welfare. Our strategies to prevent, identify and manage head injuries are driven by a passion to safeguard our players and founded on the latest science, evidence and independent expert guidance.”

How high could a potential settlement figure be?

“It’s too early to say, but in a broad brush sense these are all pretty young men in early middle age with, many of them, progressive neurodegenerative brain injuries, so it’s highly likely their claims would be considerable,” believes Richard Boardman of Rylands Law.

If the case went to court, how would it play out?

Jonathan Compton, partner at DMH Stallard, says: “Where the claimants themselves will face difficulty is when they are asked specifically how they can attribute any of their conditions to their playing career, when did their symptoms start, how were they caused. But their sense that it is right to be seeking compensation seems just.

“For the governing bodies, when it comes to the matter possibly going to court, even if they were to win the optics do not look good. How would it come across asking former players suffering from health conditions to defend themselves in court?”


The Telegraph article – Rugby told to ‘change or die’ amid fears about concussion crisis suicides (Restricted access)


New Zealand Herald article – Rugby: Ex-All Black Carl Hayman part of players group taking legal action against World Rugby over brain injuries (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


World Rugby’s defence on dementia: ‘It’s about lifestyle choices’


Lawyers circle as yet another study links rugby to brain abnormalities


Dementia class action likely to force world rugby unions to act


All Blacks star joins international class action following early onset dementia diagnosis




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