Class-Action Lawsuit Filed Against FIFA, U.S. Youth Soccer Over Concussions
SEATTLE – Attorney Steve W. Berman, managing partner and co-founder of Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, along with Derek Howard and Jack Lee of San Francisco-based Minami Tamaki LLP, have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of several current and former soccer players against soccer’s worldwide governing body—the Fèdèration Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)—and affiliated soccer organizations in the United States.
The lawsuit alleges that these groups have failed to adopt effective policies to evaluate and manage concussions, a common occurrence at all levels of the game. They also claim that a lack of effective policies poses a greater danger to women and children players, who are more vulnerable to traumatic and long-lasting brain injury.
“The medical community called for change over a decade ago and despite simple, best-practice guidelines, which have been updated three times since the initial international conference on concussions, FIFA has failed to enact the policies and rules needed to protect soccer players,” Berman said. “We believe it is imperative we force these organizations to put a stop to hazardous practices that put players at unnecessary risk.”
The players bringing the suit say that despite participating in and even hosting conferences that have created common-sense guidelines, FIFA has failed to enact the policies and rules needed to protect soccer players. The suit also names U.S. Youth Soccer and American Youth Soccer—leagues responsible for over three million child and adolescent soccer players in the United States—for allegedly failing to incorporate up-to-date guidelines into their concussion policies. The lawsuit could result in reformed concussion policies for millions of soccer players around the world.
FIFA’s guidelines appear to suggest that players self-diagnose brain injuries by allowing a referee and not a medical professional to determine if the player is too injured to continue. The players allege that “returning a player to play before fully recovered negligently puts him or her at risk of a permanent brain injury.”
“The negligence is remarkable, given that FIFA actively promotes its activities to children,” Berman said, noting that the FIFA video game is the best-selling sports video game in the world and the second best-selling in the United States. “Yet no rule limits headers in children’s soccer, and children are often taught to head the ball from the age of three. We estimate that a dedicated youth player might sustain 1,000 headers per year, and a high school player more than 1,800 headers.”
Concern over soccer concussions mounted during the 2014 World Cup, where multiple players returned to play after violent hits to the head. In the final match, Germany’s Christoph Kramer crashed into the shoulder of an opposing player and appeared to pass out. He returned to play, only to be assisted off the field fifteen minutes later in a stupor. Under NFL rules, passing out requires immediate removal from the game. Such spectacles have drawn widespread criticism of FIFA from players, commentators, and even members of Congress.
The players cite FIFA’s marketing and policy materials, which tout a commitment to player safety. In the past, FIFA has implemented policies to address health threats including cardiac arrest and performance-enhancing drugs, and concussions deserve the same attention.
The lawsuit, Mehr v. Fèdèration Internationale de Football Association, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California seeks to require FIFA and its U.S. affiliates to implement up-to-date guidelines for detection of head injuries and for return to play after a concussion. The suit also calls for regulation of heading by players under 17 years old, and a rule change to permit substitution of players for medical evaluation purposes. Currently, FIFA rules generally allow only three substitutions per game with no clear provision for head injuries. If an athlete bleeds, even from a scrape, removal is required, but no similar rule exists for concussions. FIFA provides no guidance on substitutions in youth games in the U.S.
“FIFA’s and U.S. Soccer’s failure to act and protect these young players is no longer acceptable, given the epidemic of concussive injuries and the failure to implement important advances in medical treatments and protocols,” Howard said. “High school soccer players suffer an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of concussions compared to other youth sports.”
In addition, the lawsuit seeks medical monitoring for soccer players who received head injuries in the past. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages to compensate for athletes’ injuries, but injured athletes could still pursue awards individually.
In 2013, FIFA reported $1.386 billion in revenue. The 2014 World Cup brought FIFA $1.2 billion from U.S. broadcasters alone.
Hagens Berman recently led a separate class action and settlement that will reform concussion policies across the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The case against FIFA could mean similar changes to soccer around the world.
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About Hagens Berman
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm with offices in nine cities. The firm has been named to the National Law Journal’s Plaintiffs’ Hot List seven times. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.
About Minami Tamaki
Minami Tamaki LLP is a consumer and employee rights, immigration and nationality, personal injury, and corporate and business law firm based in the San Francisco Bay area in California. Minami Tamaki is consistently recognized as one of the top law firms in the U.S. and it has earned an "AV" rating by the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, the highest rating for professional competence and ethics. For information about the litigation firm, visit www.minamitamaki.com.