The Ohio Supreme Court became the first state high court to tackle the issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”) in court, holding that CTE could be treated as a latent condition that develops long after an initial injury. Steven Schmitz, a former football player at Notre Dame from 1974 to 1978, initially sued Notre Dame and the NCAA in 2014, alleging that the institutions showed a “reckless disregard” for player safety. Schmitz passed away in 2015, succumbing to a brain disease caused by the numerous concussions he had suffered.
Notre Dame and the NCAA argued that under Ohio state law, the lawsuit should be dismissed because the two-year statute of limitations period should have begun with Schmitz’s last game in 1978. Further, the institutions argued that even if Schmitz was not aware of his injury when his playing days concluded, he should have been aware of the injury when his symptoms first began to present themselves in 2010.
Instead, the court ruled that the statute of limitations was triggered when he was first diagnosed with CTE in 2012, meaning the suit was allowed to proceed. The court applied the “discovery rule,” concluding that even if Schmitz was aware of his symptoms, the statute of limitations did not begin until he was informed by a medical authority of an injury that could lead to a claim.
Although the court’s ruling regarding the statute of limitations could open the door for more player plaintiffs to pursue claims based on decades-old injuries, the underlying merits of Schmitz’s claim remain undecided. The court seemed to express some skepticism about Schmitz’s claim, stating, “head injuries, including concussions, are an inherent part of football. They do not inherently suggest the existence of actionable wrongdoing.” Still, the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling seems to be part of a broader trend towards more favorable treatment of plaintiffs in concussion lawsuits.
Mike Klain is a Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2021).