Should football helmets be blamed for head injuries?
By Denise A. Valenti

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A jury in Colorado recently determined Rhett Ridolfi was entitled to $11.5 million dollars in damages for injuries. Ridolfi suffered a head injury during an August 2008 practice session with his Colorado high school football team, but he was not immediately taken to a hospital. The blow resulted in a concussion leaving Ridolfi paralyzed on his left side and having brain damage.

INDUSTRY PULSE

Should Riddell be held responsible for head injuries in football?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

His family filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the helmet he was wearing — Riddell — and the high school administration and football coaches. Prior to going to trial, three parties negotiated confidential settlements leaving two coaches and Ridell to move to trial. While the jury awarded Ridolfi $11.5 million, it was determined that Riddell was responsible for only 27 percent and will have to pay $3.1 million of the awarded damages. The remaining balance is the responsibility of the coaches. However, as the coaches are considered government employees and immune to such legal action, they will not be responsible for the damages, making the amount more symbolic than actual.

Riddell was not found to be liable due to defective helmets but was found to be at fault for failing to properly warn those using the helmets of the risks associated with injuries to the head in football.

"While disappointed in the jury's decision not to fully exonerate Riddell, we are pleased the jury determined that Riddell's helmet was not defective in any way," the company said in a statement. "We intend to appeal this verdict, and we remain steadfast in our belief that Riddell designs and manufactures the most protective football headgear for the athlete."

Recognizing the threat of head injury, the first protective helmet for football was worn in an Army-Navy game in 1893. It was designed by a shoemaker for Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves as he had been advised by a Navy doctor that he risked death or "instant insanity" if he experienced another blow to his head. Over the years the football helmet has evolved, and in 1943 the NFL required all players to wear helmets.

Starting in 1949, the helmets were changed to plastic instead of leather, and in 1986 the material used in helmets was polycarbonate. By 1955, the helmets had a single face bar, and in 1975 full facemasks were used. Helmets became padded, and in 1971 Riddell added air bladders for greater protection. Chin straps were first introduced in 1940, and in 2011 the chin straps incorporated impact sensors to detect injury. Some Riddell helmet models have technology that monitors frequency and severity of hits during play by telemetry recording systems.

Riddell will continue to be in the position to defend the helmets. Edward Acuna was also wearing a Riddell helmet for football when as a senior at Garey High School in Pomona, Calif., he took a hit to the front of his helmet causing serious injury. Acuna is partially paralyzed and will require life-long treatment and care. A lawsuit has been filed on his behalf claiming product liability and that Riddell was aware of a defective design in its helmets. This legal action is pending.

Another case against Riddell also involving head injury during high school football resulted in a jury concluding that Riddell's helmets performed as expected and the company was not responsible for injury during football. This case was filed by the parents of a high school football player suffering a stroke while playing for George County High School in Lucedale, Miss., on Sept. 13, 2006. Riddell's general counsel Thomas Merrigan commented when found not liable by unanimous jury in October 2012: "We are pleased that the jury recognized the rigorous approach that Riddell brings to the research, development, testing and certification of our protective sports equipment."

To what extent companies providing protective equipment for contact sports may be liable when the equipment does not fully protect against injury is not clear. Despite the jury findings in the Colorado case, Riddell believes it designs and manufactures the most protective helmets and headgear for football. Football is an aggressive sport and violent collisions can occur. No technology can prevent all injuries in sports.

Dr. Denise A. Valenti is a residency-trained, low-vision/blind-rehabilitation optometrist with additional education and expertise in the field of age-related neurodegenerative diseases with the emphasis on Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Her research has included the study of imaging of retinal neural tissue using Optical Coherence Tomography and functional assessment of neural processing in the visual system using Frequency Doubling Technology. Dr. Valenti provided direct clinical care for more than 25 years and currently is active in research and consultation related to vision, aging, neuroprocessing and cognitive functions.