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Sovereign Immunity in Wrongful Death Cases

In March 2008, University of Central Florida football player Ereck Plancher struggled to complete post-spring break conditioning drill. According to the Associated Press, former teammates claim he gasped for breath at times and struggled to make it through the workout. Contrary to what UCF officials claimed, the former teammates asserted this workout was “punishment” for those who had returned from vacation in less-than-stellar shape. They also claim that the UCF coach, George O’Leary, cursed Plancher prior to his passing out and being carried off the field. O’Leary also, they claimed, ordered water and trainers off the fields during this training session.

Ereck Plancher died following that workout. In 2009, his parents brought a wrongful death suit against UCF Athletics Association (or UCFAA), alleging that officials failed to do everything in their power to save Plancher’s life. Wrongful death is a death that occurs due to the negligence or misconduct of another. To prove negligence, the Plaintiff must show that the Defendant owed a duty to the deceased to use reasonable care, breached that duty, and, as a result, caused the decedent’s death. Damages must also be proven as a result of the death, as damages are not presumed in negligence cases. Wrongful death actions are brought by surviving family members.

The case went to trial in March 2011. The Medical Examiner for Orange County and experts hired by the deceased’s family testified that Plancher died from complications from a sickle cell trait. The jury found for the Plaintiffs, and awarded $5 million apiece to Plancher’s parents, Enoch and Gisesle Plancher.

As expected, UCF and its insurance company appealed the verdict. In August 2013, the Florida 5th District Court of Appeal reduced the damages, finding that UCF’s power of control over its athletics association is sufficient for sovereign immunity afforded to state agencies in civil judgments. Any award above $200,000 now has to be approved by the legislature. (Sovereign immunity prevents the government or its departments, and agencies, etc. from being sued without its consent). However, the appeals court did deny UCF’s request for a new trial, and ruled that a medical release form Plancher signed did not waive his right to sue UCFAA (UCF Athletic Association), which were partial victories for Plancher’s parents. Other players have died under similar circumstances at other high schools and colleges, including Northwestern, Florida State, and Missouri.

The good news for the Plancher family is that, while this award was reduced since the court found UCFAA was a state actor, granting it sovereign immunity, the family may still appeal to the Florida legislature to attempt to recoup additional funds. If your loved one has been a victim of a any wrongful death, whether from a car accident, slip and fall, workplace accident, or one resulting from too-strenuous high school or college athletics, contact Brooks Law Group today. Our attorneys experienced in wrongful death actions can evaluate your claim and secure any compensation to which you may be entitled.

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