Family members file suit vs. NCAA over deaths of 4 ex-football players

The widow of former Grand Valley State University quarterback Cullen Finnerty was among four family members of deceased college football players who filed wrongful death lawsuits against the NCAA on Monday, alleging brain disease caused by concussions led to the players' premature deaths.

Finnerty, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history with a 51-4 record at Grand Valley State from 2003 to 2006, went missing during a fishing trip in Michigan in May 2013. He was found dead in the woods three days later. He was 30.

According to a lawsuit filed by Jennifer Finnerty in Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis, her late husband was "knocked unconscious and suffered multiple concussions and/or sub concussive impacts to the head during games and/or practice" while playing at Toledo in 2001 and then at Grand Valley State.

During a fishing trip while on a family vacation, the lawsuit says, Finnerty became "confused and anxious, calling his wife stating that he was being followed by two men and was getting out of the water." The lawsuit says Finnerty, who worked as a medical device salesman, suffered a similar incident while working in Detroit.

"This call was unfortunately reminiscent of an earlier incident he had," the lawsuit says. "Mr. Finnerty was out with co-workers in Detroit, Michigan, when he began to believe he was being followed. In a bout of paranoia, Mr. Finnerty drove 150 miles to his brother's house. When he arrived, there was nobody behind him."

The widows of former San Diego State linebacker Jeff Staggs (1965-66) and UCLA and Long Beach State running back Rodney Stensrud (1969-73) and the mother of former USC fullback Doug MacKenzie (1977-81) also filed wrongful death lawsuits against the NCAA on Monday.

"Our family has filed this lawsuit against the NCAA to make a difference," MacKenzie's mother, Dorothy MacKenzie-Schmidt, said in a statement. "Too many football players have gone on to develop brain disease, including my son Doug, and the time for change has come. We want football to be as safe as it can be, and we want student-athletes to be aware of the terrible consequences that concussions early on can have throughout their lives."

An autopsy in 2013 revealed Cullen Finnerty died of pneumonia caused by inhaling his vomit after he became disoriented, possibly because of painkillers combined with having chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that has been found in a number of ex-football players. The medical examiner's report said it was likely Finnerty had anxiety, disorientation and paranoia from being alone in the woods while waiting for in-laws to pick him up.

Finnerty's brain was studied at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which said in August 2013 that the severity of CTE was moderate and that it was highly unlikely the disease alone led to his death.

Jennifer Finnerty's lawsuit claims the NCAA failed to recognize and monitor concussive and subconcussive injuries during practices and games; failed to inform student-athletes about the dangers of such injuries; failed to implement rules about when players could return to play after suffering concussions; failed to monitor their health after suffering concussions; and failed to inform their families about the injuries.

"For decades, the NCAA has been aware -- through its own institutional knowledge, medical science, and news articles about former football players -- that severe head impacts can lead to long-term brain injury, including memory loss, dementia, depression, and CTE," the lawsuit says. "Unfortunately, while the NCAA knew about the harmful and devastating effects of these subconcussive and concussive injuries, it recklessly ignored these facts and failed to implement reasonable concussion management protocols to protect its athletes, including Cullen Finnerty."

The NCAA and the widow of a former Texas Longhorns football player reached an undisclosed settlement in June, on the third day of a civil trial in Dallas, in which the widow's attorneys argued the NCAA was responsible for his brain injuries and death more than four decades after he played for the Longhorns.

Debra Hardin-Ploetz sued the NCAA for negligence and wrongful death in January 2017, more than a year after her husband, Greg Ploetz, died from brain injuries in May 2015. Greg Ploetz, who played on the Longhorns' 1969 national championship team, was 66. Her lawsuit was seeking more than $1 million in damages, according to court records.

"The settlement gives all parties the opportunity to resolve the case outside of a lengthy trial," Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said in a statement at the time. "The NCAA does not admit liability as part of the settlement. We will continue to defend the Association vigorously in all jurisdictions where similar unwarranted individual cases are pursued. It is our hope that other plaintiffs' lawyers recognize that this is one settlement in one case."

Remy couldn't immediately be reached for comment Monday night.