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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell listens to a question during a news conference after the NFL owners meeting, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, in Irving, Texas. (LM Otero/AP)
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell listens to a question during a news conference after the NFL owners meeting, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, in Irving, Texas. (LM Otero/AP)

NFL agrees to eliminate cap on player payments in concussion lawsuit Add to ...

The NFL has made an open-ended commitment to pay cash awards to retirees who suffer from dementia and other diseases linked to repeated head hits, according to documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Wednesday.

The guarantee is part of a revised settlement in the contentious lawsuit filed by about 5,000 retired players who accused the league of hiding from them the dangers of concussions.

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In August, the league agreed to pay $765 million to settle the suit with the retired players. But Judge Anita B. Brody rejected the proposal in January because she said she doubted whether there would be enough money to cover all the claims over the 65-year life of the settlement.

Lawyers for the league and the plaintiffs spent the past six months revising the settlement. If the judge approves the new version in the coming weeks, it will be sent to all 18,000 retired players and their beneficiaries, who can then approve the settlement, object or opt out of it. The results of that vote are unlikely to be known for at least several months, and no players will be paid until all appeals are exhausted.

The league’s new promise to compensate all qualified claims could convince retirees who said they would opt out of the original settlement because they felt the league could have set aside more money for players with serious neurological disorders.

“Today’s agreement reaffirms the NFL’s commitment to provide help to those retired players and their families who are in need, and to do so without the delay, expense and emotional cost associated with protracted litigation,” Anastasia Danias, a senior vice president and the chief litigation officer of the NFL, said.

Lawyers for the retirees, many of whom have worked on a contingency basis, have also been eager to settle the case so they can be paid. They have argued against opting out of the settlement because suing the league again would be a daunting and expensive task.

In a statement, the plaintiffs’ lead counsels, Christopher Seeger and Sol Weiss, said, “This settlement guarantees that these benefits will be there if needed, and does so without years of litigation that may have left many retired players without any recourse.”

The requirements to qualify for cash awards, which are based on the number of years a player was in the NFL and his age at the time he developed dementia or other neurological disorders, will not change. In general, younger retired players who fall ill will be eligible for more than older retirees, and players who played for five or more years will receive more than those with less time.

The league, however, insisted on measures to prevent retired players from filing false claims. The standards for the doctors who will be eligible to diagnose retired players for the purposes of receiving cash awards have been tightened in the new proposal, and a network of approved doctors will be created.

As in the original agreement, the league will still set aside $75 million for baseline testing of retirees and $10 million for concussion research and education. But a provision in the original agreement that would have prevented players who receive cash payouts from suing the NCAA “or any other collegiate, amateur or youth football organization” has been removed from the new proposed settlement.

The revised plan took about six months to complete partly because all 32 team owners had to discuss the merits and risks of making an open-ended commitment to fund cash awards. The league wanted to ensure that a revised settlement would be approved by the retirees and stand up under scrutiny if the settlement was appealed.

The league has been eager to finalize a deal. Since the proposed settlement was announced, the league has been dogged by suspicions that the owners could have paid much more to settle the case. In the original agreement, the owners had to pay half of the settlement in the first three years and the rest during the succeeding 17 years, or a few million dollars per team per year.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the NFL hired actuaries and medical experts, who determined that $765 million was adequate. But they refused to share any of their data with the public, which fueled speculation further.

An analysis by The New York Times suggested that the skeptics had a point. Given how many of the 13,500 currently retired players may develop severe neurological disorders over the next 65 years, the costs are closer to $1 billion, if not more.

While prominent retired players have been voicing their skepticism about the settlement and the intentions of NFL owners, the league has tried to change the tenor of the debate over concussions in football by donating tens of millions of dollars to hospitals and research and education programs.

Even with the league’s new open-ended commitment, some players may continue to question the settlement, which does not require the league to admit any fault, and does not require players to prove that their illnesses are a direct result of concussions received during their time in the NFL.

Some retired players, though, may still grumble that the lead plaintiffs’ lawyers continue to request $112 million in legal fees.

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