Huge news in the Charleston area, and more specifically across the Harbor in Mt. Pleasant, where one of the Howell and Christmas offices is located, surrounding the wrongful death of a former Wando High School football star who died in his first voluntary workout at Western Carolina University. Your attorneys in Charleston learned of this tragic event back in the summer of 2009, but this week the family of the 20-year-old defensive back filed a wrongful death suit against members of the Western Carolina coaching staff. Named defendants in the lawsuit include the University’s athletic director, head coach, defensive coordinator, head athletic trainer, and former strength coach.
According to the lawsuit, said defendants breached their duty to the young player in failing to “develop policies and procedures to safely train and condition athletes with the sickle cell trait.” According to the Post and Courier, the suit seeks a sum in excess of $10,000 and further alleges “”information about sickle cell trait and exertional sickling was available to all … defendants, who chose to ignore it.” The wrongful death suit was filed back in January in Jackson County, North Carolina.
In defendant’s response to the claim, they acknowledge that the player’s mother disclosed that he had the sickle cell trait in questionnaire filled out in 2008, but the response denies all other allegations.
The young player was a recent transfer from Georgia Military College, and while at Wando High School here in Mt. Pleasant, he was a North-South All-Star and an All-Lowcountry Player.
The autopsy, which was released in November 2009 listed the cause of death as due to complications from an enlarged heart, and additionally noted the sickle cell trait and exertion as contributing factors. The sickle cell trait is a condition where a person carries one copy of the gene for sickle cell, but does not display the severe symptoms associated with the sickle cell disease that occur in a person who carries two copies of that gene. The trait is found in 1 and 12 African Americans.
In some cases, extreme exercise can cause healthy red blood cells to turn sickle-shaped, which can ultimately lead to death during such exercise due to low blood oxygen levels, increased muscle heat and dehydration.
Thus, several questions arise when considering the wrongful death suit filed by the former Wando player’s family. Is it the duty of the Western Carolina football program to ensure the safety of a player who they know is at risk of serious injuries or even death because of medical condition? Or, is it the responsibility of the player to know his own physical exertion limit? To go another step further, the workout was voluntary, so what role does the young man’s choice to workout play in determining if there was a breach of duty?
Without knowing all the facts surrounding the tragic incident, it is impossible to answer these questions with any certainty. Originally, a trial was set for this month, but a change in defense counsel has pushed a mediation and discovery deadline to the middle of December.
After a bit of “Googling” and research your Charleston lawyers came across some interesting fact sheets on the sickle-cell trait targeted to both coaches and players by the NCAA. Both fact sheets describe the condition and the potential risks of hard exercise, as well as give tips to preventing fatal accidents like the one that occurred in Cullowhee at Western Carolina. Most astounding is that within the coaches fact sheet the NCAA lists that between 2008-2009 a reported seven football student-athletes with sickle cell trait died during conditioning activities, while the player fact sheet encourages athletes to engage in a slow and gradual preseason conditioning regimen. These bits of information are all too applicable to our former Wando star. The links to the NCAA fact sheets can be found by clicking “coaches” and “players”, respectively, in the first sentence of this paragraph.