Jurors in a small southern town in Colorado found that Riddell Helmets contributorily negligent in the head injuries a former Trinidad High School (CO) football sustained in 2008. As a result of its verdict, the jury awarded damages in the amount of $11.5 million, of which Riddell is responsible for paying $3.1 million.
The lawsuit arose after Rhett Ridolfi participated in a “Machine Gun Drill” during an early morning practice. During the course of the drill, Ridolfi allegedly made helmet-to-helmet contact with another teammate. This contact resulted in Ridolfi sustaining a serious head injury, which according to Ridolfi’s attorney, has left Ridolfi with impulse and behavioral problems and has left in a walking brace and with limited functions on his body’s left side.
Ridolfi’s mother filed the lawsuit on his behalf in March 2010. The lawsuit alleged negligence not only against Riddell, but also against six of Ridolfi’s football coaches. Three of the coaches were found by the jury to be negligent. However, reports indicate that damages were not ordered to be paid by them. Ridolfi’s attorney told the media that he will be filing a motion to have Riddell pay all of the $11.5 million in damages awarded by the jury. Riddell plans to appeal the verdict.
While the court transcript has not been reviewed, it appears that Ridolfi’s attorney argued that the defendants were liable for two types of products liability negligence: product defect and failure to warn.
With respect to the product defect claim, Ridolfi’s attorneys argued that the padding in the front of Ridolfi’s helmet which was manufactured by Riddell wasn’t safe enough. They also argued that another type of padding could have been used which would have protected Ridolfi. This argument was rejected by the jury.
However, the jury found that Riddell was negligent in the type of warning it provided on its helmet, which was worn by Ridolfi. Under tort law, a product may be defective as a result of the manufacturer’s failure to give adequate warnings as to the risks involved in using the product. For liability to attach, the danger must not be apparent to users.
Reports indicate that Riddell has included a warning label on its helmets since 2002. However, in this instance, it appears that the Colorado jury found that the warning label present on Ridolfi’s helmet in 2008 was inadequate. This was likely due to the fact that the warning label did not warn against the possibility that the helmet would not protect against concussions and serious bodily injury sustained from instances including helmet-to-helmet contact.
A statement released by Riddell indicated that it believed that if testimony from a “warnings” expert would have been admitted by the judge, that it would have been fully exonerated in this case. It is likely that Riddell’s appeal will argue that point, as well as the damages awarded and that its warning was sufficient.
This case, which arose out of a small town in Colorado, likely has larger implications than the damages which Riddell is facing paying. First, it demonstrates juries’ willingness to hold helmet manufacturers liable for failing to adequately warn of the injuries football players can sustain even while wearing a helmet. This factor is relevant as Riddell is currently facing at least two other cases on this issue, one of which is brought by 4,000 former NFL players. Whether juries in other jurisdictions–where the other cases against Riddell are located–will find similarly will only be determined by time. Furthermore, it is to be seen whether other courts allow Riddell’s “warnings” expert to take the stand and how that testimony may impact the outcome of the trial.
Riddell, however, can likely breathe a small sigh of relief that the Colorado jury did not find the design of its product to be defective. Thus, Riddell may feel fairly certain that the product design defense it has created may be successful in other jurisdictions and in front of other jurors.
Nonetheless, the road for Riddell is not clear. In coming months, it faces cases against plaintiffs who are more well-known (for example, the family of the late Junior Seau), have deeper pockets and greater media attention on their sides. It is to be seen whether given these factors, juries return similar verdicts to that reached by the Colorado jury.
Alicia Jessop is a Colorado-based attorney and the founder of the sports law website RulingSports.com. Nothing in this article is legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is intended to be created by this article. Follow Alicia @RulingSports and at AliciaJessop.com.