The Rugby Brain Injury Claims

It was recently reported that a large group of ex-rugby players, some of whom are only relatively recently retired, are bringing claims against rugby governing bodies following the shocking news that they have been diagnosed with a form of early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Those bringing the action claim that their diagnoses have arisen from negligent mismanagement related to repeated head injuries and concussions sustained throughout their careers. A number of current and former players have since publically shared their own concerning experiences, including World Cup winner Kat Merchant, who recently told the BBC that at the age of 35 she suffers ongoing symptoms of concussion and has a lower cognitive capacity than previously.

What Should Be Considered?

These cases will doubtlessly be complex and multi-factorial, but, in order to be successful, the claimants will essentially have to prove that they were owed a duty of care by the defendants before proving that the defendants breached the relevant standard of care that applied throughout their playing careers. They will then have to show that their diagnoses were more than likely caused by such a breach or breaches by the defendants. Another key factor to be considered will be the degree of risk to which a player will have consented to by taking part in a high impact sport such as rugby, whilst any court decision would likely seek to avoid adversely impacting and hindering a desirable activity. Rugby is a sport enjoyed by millions across the world and brings many benefits such as physical fitness, discipline and social interaction and any court judgment will likely, as a matter of public policy, be cautious not to detract from these benefits.

It is unusual to see such high-profile and widespread litigation arising in a sporting context, although the above claims are not without some sort of precedent. In 2011, a class action lawsuit was brought against the NFL by a group of former American football players, leading to the creation of a fund specifically for players with such claims which, to date, has paid out over eight million dollars. The litigation also prompted a raft of changes to improve safety surrounding concussions. It is unclear how the claims brought in the rugby context will progress, but the claimants have already set out a list of “15 commandments” to improve safety surrounding head injuries in the game. Such requests include a limit to contact training and improved education on the issue of concussion.

Which Other Sports Have Been Impacted?

Whilst the progress of the litigation is something that lies in the hands of the relevant parties and potentially the court, it is worth noting the impact that these claims have already had by way of the significant publicity the story has generated and the number of players that have subsequently shared their story. It has also shone a light on other sports. Despite its significantly higher profile, football often appears to be playing catch up in its implementation and application of safety surrounding head injuries, something highlighted by Alan Shearer in his 2017 documentary ‘Dementia, Football and Me’. This was starkly evident when Arsenal defender David Luiz recently played on for 40 minutes after suffering a head injury before eventually being substituted. The impact was so severe it caused a fractured skull to his opponent, Wolves striker Raul Jimenez, requiring emergency surgery.

Whilst the circumstances of the claimants that have ignited the litigation in rugby are tragic, the increased publicity has prompted further debate and put significant pressure on sporting governing bodies to ensure that the sports they govern are as safe as they reasonably can be. This increased awareness of the risks of concussion can also benefit wider society, with the NFL litigation leading to considerable progress in the medical sector’s understanding of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Such benefits can apply beyond the high-profile sporting sphere and, whilst the priority of most personal injury claimants is to obtain a settlement that seeks to improve their quality of life following their injury, we often see claimants who want to ensure that lessons are learned and that other people don’t suffer in the way they did. Such benefits are often just as important to our clients as the settlement itself and are benefits that can be salvaged from desperately sad situations, such as those the rugby claimants have found themselves in.