Drugs Masking Injuries to Athletes; Professional Athletes Bring Class Action Lawsuit

Should team doctors or trainers give painkillers to injured players in an effort to help them “play through the pain?”  Does masking the pain with drugs take away the players’ right to make an informed decision of whether or not they should continue to play?  Surely keeping a player’s injury a secret from the player himself represents a breach of ethics and — according to the players — makes the team liable for damages.

The recent lawsuit filed against the National Football League (NFL) by a group of retired NFL players will surely center around two interesting legal doctrines:

  1. Informed consent
  2. Assumption of risk

Informed Consent

The legal notion of informed consent says that as adults, we each have a right to decide what is done to our body.

Playing through pain is one thing.  Very often, what makes a great athlete is his or her tolerance for pain.  For example, watch a miler or a cross-country skier flopping down after crossing the finish line during the Olympics.  Herndon athletes lawyer Doug Landau knows all too well what if feels like to push through pain.  After all, as he will tell you himself, he sometimes sounds like a wounded water buffalo, breathing so heavily at the end of a triathlon.

But playing through pain is not the legal issue in the case against the NFL.  The issue is one of informed consent.  Were the players’ rights to decide what was done to their bodies violated by the team doctors who administered painkillers and withheld information about the athletes’ injuries?   Only bad could come of not telling these professional athletes they were being administered drugs that mask the body’s natural pain signals and skew its healing systems.

Assumption of Risk

The most common defense in sports injury cases is the legal doctrine of assumption of risk – the voluntary assumption of a known and appreciated risk.  In the case against the NFL, the argument for the professional football league would be that the players fully understood, appreciated, and willingly accepted the dangers of playing professional football.  Under assumption of risk, the NFL would not be held liable for any damages.

In an interesting aside, the doctrine of assumption of risk cannot be applied to children because they cannot be said to have fully appreciated dangers associated with an activity or action.

Click here to read a past article about assumption of risk and how it applies in legal cases in Virginia.

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