UCF has six months to respond to intent to sue notice

Updated: August 1, 2008, 5:14 PM ET
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN.com

The parents of a 19-year-old University of Central Florida football player who died following a March conditioning workout filed notice Friday that they intend to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the school.

Ereck Plancher, a redshirt freshman wide receiver from Naples, Fla., collapsed March 18 after a 20-minute training session on the Orlando campus. Last week, the Orange County Medical Examiner said the cause of death was connected to Plancher possessing the sickle cell trait -- a condition that the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) believes has been tied to 10 deaths since 2000.

Plancher "experienced exhaustion, dizziness, shortness of breath, and other signs of extreme fatigue that were ignored by trainers and/or coaches of the University of Central Florida," according to the notice, which was sent to the chairman of the UCF Board of Trustees, as well as the Florida Department of Financial Services. "As a direct and proximate result of the University of Central Florida's negligence, Ereck Plancher collapsed and died."

Plancher's parents, Enoch and Gisele, declined comment through their lawyer, J.D. Dowell. Dowell issued a statement that read, in part: "The Plancher family has been frustrated by the fact that they have not been able to get an accurate account of what happened during the conditioning drills on March 18. They feel very strongly that they do not want any other families to go through what they are going through."

"The health of our student-athletes is our top priority, and we provide superb medical care at UCF," university spokesman Grant Heston said. "We have received the notice of claim. Per university policy, we do not comment on matters that are in pending litigation."

Head coach George O'Leary, other football personnel and athletic department officials repeatedly have declined ESPN's interview requests.

After the autopsy results were made public last week, UCF athletic director Keith Tribble said, "We have said repeatedly that Ereck passed all of his physicals and was cleared to participate fully by UCF team physicians. Our staff advised Ereck of his sickle cell trait and monitored his physical condition at every practice and workout."

The notice of intent does not mean the Planchers definitely will sue, however it is the first step required by Florida law before such a lawsuit can be brought. The school has six months to respond to the notice.

In the event the Planchers follow through with a lawsuit, their son's condition and how the school reacted to it are likely to be at the center of such a case. ESPN previously reported that UCF became aware Plancher had sickle cell trait in January 2007; the school subsequently acknowledged that coaches, trainers and Plancher himself knew he carried the trait and insisted he was treated properly.

Athletes who carry the sickle cell trait are not precluded from playing or practicing. However, in June 2007, NATA issued a consensus statement warning that athletes who possess the trait are at greater risk during extreme conditioning exercises. The statement said collapses often were associated with a series of sprints, such as "gassers," and typically occurred during the initial workouts of a season or offseason. For athletes with the trait, NATA recommended, among other things, paced progression in workouts and more time for rest and recovery.

NATA cited nine deaths (this was prior to Plancher's collapse) tied to sickle cell trait dating back to 2000.

Some medical professionals have suggested there is no clinical evidence to support NATA's statement. However, in its autopsy report, the medical examiner cited papers written by Dr. Randy Eichner, a co-chair of the NATA task force and the University of Oklahoma's team physician. The autopsy report concluded that Plancher had been "predisposed to sickling of the red blood cells during periods of physical stress."

The Orlando Sentinel, quoting four unnamed UCF players, previously reported that Plancher fell to the ground during sprints at the end of the conditioning session on March 18 -- the day before spring practice was officially scheduled to begin -- and that he showed signs of being in distress during the workout.

O'Leary told the paper he didn't see Plancher struggling and that his care was handled properly.

In April, ESPN filed a public records request to UCF seeking documents related to Plancher's death, including an internal review. UCF responded in May by providing a series of documents, mostly e-mails. However, the bulk of the material was related to media inquiries that followed the March 18 collapse.

UCF said it had the right to withhold additional material because, a) its athletic department is a Direct Service Organization and, thus, not beholden to Florida public record laws; and, b) some documents were considered "attorney work product."

The sickle cell gene is inherited, and it is most common among people whose family originated from areas where malaria is widespread, according to NATA. One in 12 African-Americans have the trait, compared to anywhere from one in 2,000 to one in 10,000 Caucasian Americans.

The sickle cell trait is distinguished from the disease sickle cell anemia in that only one sickle cell gene is present instead of two.

In February 2001, 18-year-old Florida State linebacker Devaughn Darling collapsed and died during an offseason conditioning workout. It was later determined Darling carried the sickle cell trait. His parents sued the university for wrongful death, claiming, among other things, their son hadn't received adequate hydration during the workout and hadn't been given adequate time to rest.

The Darlings and Florida State ultimately agreed to a $2 million settlement.

Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com

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