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Close-up of Korey Stringer leaving the field during a 2000 game
Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer leaves the field on Nov. 12, 2000, in Minneapolis. Stringer died Aug. 1, 2001, from heat stroke, a day after he collapsed at the team's training camp. (AP file photo: Tom Olmscheid)

Perspectives: Hamlin’s injury recalls Viking Stringer’s death

Dancing is a contact sport; Football is a collision sport.”

Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State Football Coach

The horrific cardiac arrest suffered by Buffalo Bills’ defensive safety Damar Hamlin in the Monday evening football game last week against the Cincinnati Bengals was a painful reminder of the risks and other vicissitudes of the game and the harm it inflicts on the participants.

Hopes and prayers for his recovery have been widely extended — in this space, too — to the injured player and his family as he valiantly struggles to recover. The incident recalls a prior pro football tragedy that occurred here a little over two decades ago, a preseason football fatality that shook the sport, precipitated a number of measures, while still insufficient, concerning player safety and well-being.

It was the death of the Minnesota Vikings star tackle Korey Stringer. In addition to highlighting these issues, the litigation stemming from his untimely death created a landmark legal ruling affecting the workplace rights and obligations of employees and their employers.

Training tragedy

The tragedy occurred in the summer of the 2001 preseason training program. The huge 27-year-old all-Pro National Football League lineman from Ohio State died on Aug. 1 that year of complications from heatstroke as the team was participating in its second day of workouts during a spell of extraordinary hot weather. Temperatures in Mankato, where the squad then trained, hovered above 100 degrees, with a heat index of nearly 109. Stringer’s temperature was recorded as 108.8 degrees when he died.

The death of the pillar of power in the team’s offensive line, who left behind a wife, Kelcie, and young son, Kodie, was a seminal event in the lives of the family, the Vikings, and pro football in general. It prompted changes how the game is played and monitored.

Stringer’s passing came years before the NFL and later other sports organizations, prodded by litigation, became serious about the deleterious effects on the health of the competitors, primarily relating to concussions.

But it did raise awareness of the need to pay attention to the safety of athletes. As a result, new protocols were adopted by the NFL and its 32 member clubs, including the Vikings, about training procedures, medical treatment, and other health-related matters.

Those protocols trickled down to college, high school, and lower levels of football and formed the predicate for other safety-conscious practices throughout the sports world.

Stringer’s death prompted his family to establish a nonprofit organization, funded by some of the proceeds of varied litigation arising from his death. Known as the Korey Stringer Institute, it was established in the spring of 2010. It has been devoted since then to advocacy, research, and educational efforts for prevention of injuries to athletes in all sports. While initially focusing on sudden deaths of athletes, it has branched out to other safety-related concerns. Housed at the University of Connecticut, the Institute has been, like its namesake, a big player in its field, advancing the health and safety of a multitude of athletes in a wide variety of sports at many different levels.

Vanquished Vikings 

The Vikings did not fare well in the aftermath of the tragedy sans Stringer. The team got off to a bad start when the visiting Carolina Panthers, led by quarterback Chris Weinke, a St. Paul native, began the initial game of the season by running back the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, vanquishing the local squad 24-13, the Panthers’ only victory that season.

It was an ignominious start for the disastrous season that followed, which was interrupted two days later by downtime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Once the season resumed, the weakened offensive line wilted, and the team ended up with a 5-11 win-loss record, prompting Coach Dennis Green to leave in a tumultuous departure. His vacancy was filled by Mike Tice, Stringer’s offensive line coach, who was blamed by some for driving the lineman and others too hard in the heat that preceded his death, although he was never proven to be culpable.

Tice remained as coach for the first part of the decade, overseeing a team in decline from its customary winning ways under his predecessor. It took nearly a decade, a change in ownership, the firing of Tice, and the short-lived acquisition of quarterback Brett Favre for the club to return to relevance. However, that didn’t last too long, either, before a period of middling successes and disappointments since that time.

Stringer suits 

Stringer’s death precipitated a series of lawsuits by his family. A few of them yielded monetary settlements of undisclosed amounts from the team’s outside physician and his clinic, the NFL, and the manufacturer of Stringer’s helmet and other equipment.

A wrongful death suit was ultimately thrown out of court as Stringer’s wife, on behalf of the decedent’s estate, sued the Vikings and two of its training personnel. The lawsuit against the team was dismissed because, as an employee, Stringer was relegated to a claim under the state’s workers’ compensation system, which provides much less compensation than could be sought and attained in a regular civil lawsuit.

The claims by Stringer’s estate against a pair of the team trainers, which could have triggered substantial liability on the part of the organization, also failed four years after the incident when the state Supreme Court in Stringer v Minnesota Vikings Club, 705 N. W. 2d 746 (Minn. 2005), ruled by a 4-2 margin (with former Vikings star Alan Page recusing himself) that the two medical personnel at the training site acted within the permissible bounds of “discretion” in their handling of the incident in Mankato and fell short of the “gross negligence” required to overcome the statutory bar of civil litigation against co-employees under Minn. Stat. § 176.061 to seek more than the meager benefits recoverable under the workers’ compensation law and sue for what could have been millions of dollars in a wrongful-death civil lawsuit.

The lawsuit started in Hennepin County District Court, where it was dismissed on summary judgment on grounds that it was barred by the exclusivity clause of Minn. Stat. 176.031. The Court of Appeals affirmed, 686 N.W.2d 545 (Minn. Ct. App. 2004).

The Supreme Court granted review and affirmed, but on different grounds than the appellate court. The majority decision was authored by Justice Paul Anderson, one of three “Anderson” surnamed jurists serving simultaneously on the court. Explaining the “compromise” that underlies the workers’ compensation system, he reasoned that the exclusivity provision barring most civil lawsuits except for assault, intentional tortious conduct, or “gross negligence” applied because the two trainers who attended Stringer on the practice field were acting within their scope of employment and any duty they had toward Springer “did not extend beyond their employment status.”

As the majority opinion elaborated, the workers’ compensation co-employee immunity is applicable, as a matter of law, in the absence of any “personal duty” owing by them to Stringer, which requires “direct negligence toward” him in which they “participated or which (they) specifically directed others to do.” But Justice Anderson’s decision found “no direct action toward the injured (player)” to establish the type of “personal duty” to Stringer “different than” the normal duties of their employment.

While the decision questioned in “retrospect” whether they could have administered treatment differently and, perhaps, better to save the tackle’s life, because they were exercising their “discretion” they were immune from a civil suit under the co-employee provision under § 176.061.

The two-justice dissent, written by Justice Samuel Hanson and joined by Justice Helen Meyer took a different view. It would have found that that the two trainer personnel “owed a personal duty” to Stringer because their actions were taken directly “toward him” and “were not general actions” within the scope of their job duties. It also saw existence of disputed facts whether they committed “gross negligence,” which would overcome the workers‘ compensation tort bar under § 176.061, subd. 5 (c), an issue the majority did not address because the absence of “personal duty” was considered dispositive in defeating the claim.

But the dissenters fell short and, by virtue of the 4-2 split affirming summary judgment, the dispute was punted out of the civil judicial system.

The Stringer case, adhering to conventional legal principles, is often cited and relied upon as precedent by Minnesota courts in adjudicating cases at the intersection of workers’ compensation and civil personal injury cases arising in the workplace, setting a high hurdle for civil lawsuits to obviate the restrictions of the workers’ compensation system and its paltry benefits.

It remains to be seen what developments will occur in the wake of the collision that felled Buffalo’s Hamlin. But injuries to players in an inevitably and unavoidably violent, indeed brutal sport will undoubtedly occur, and how they are handled as a legal matter may pay homage to the landmark Stringer case here in Minnesota. 

PERSPECTIVES POINTERS

Other tragic pro football incidents

  • Quarterback Joe Theisman: Gruesome broken femur during a Monday night football game.
  • Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton: Broken leg in the last game of his career against Cincinnati Bengals.
  • Receiver Daryl Stingley: Permanent spinal cord paralysis in a preseason game.
  • Linebacker Ryan Shazier: Spinal cord injury in Monday night game, partial paralysis before healing surgery.
  • Receiver Chuck Hughes: Non-contact fatal heart attack on the field.

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities Law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

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