ROCKVILLE — The family of a former Frostburg State University football player can proceed with their lawsuit over his death, which followed a head injury sustained during team practices.
Judge David A. Boynton on Friday rejected a defense motion to dismiss the wrongful death suit filed by the family of Derek Sheely, who died in August 2011 at the age of 22.
The judge dismissed the football team’s then-head coach as a defendant and denied a motion to move the trial to Allegany County, where the university is located. The lawsuit was filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court because Sheely’s family lives in Germantown.
The judge gave lawyers for the family two weeks to file an amended complaint that could bring back Thomas Rogish as a defendant and reinstate some of the dismissed counts.
On Aug. 19, 2011, Sheely was taking part in a practice drill described by teammates as “ridiculously dangerous,” where he collided at full-speed with a teammate head-first dozens of times in a span of 15 minutes, the family alleges. The drill was overseen by Assistant Coach Jamie Schumacher.
According to the complaint, the senior fullback performed the drill again the next day under Schumacher’s supervision and began bleeding from his forehead. Assistant Athletic Trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr. put a bandage on Sheely’s forehead but did not perform or concussion test or check to see if Sheely’s helmet was properly fitted. Sheely continued participating in the drill for the next two days and continued bleeding from his forehead, the family alleges.
On Aug. 22, Sheely told an assistant coach “he didn’t feel right” after the drill but continued to practice, the complaint states. He walked off the field after a scrimmage and collapsed, lapsing into a coma. He died six days later “due to complications from massive brain swelling caused by second-impact syndrome,” the lawsuit states.
“Utter incompetence, egregious misconduct, false hope and a reckless disregard for player health and safety led to the tragic death of Derek Sheely,” the family alleges.
Bradley J. Neitzel, an assistant attorney general representing the Frostburg employees, argued Friday his clients did not know Sheely had suffered a concussion nor could they have known he would be endangering his life by participating in the practice drills.
But Kenneth B. McClain, a Missouri lawyer representing Sheely’s family, said the football staff did not follow concussion guidelines and pushed Sheely back onto the field.
“Each one of them had a role in this tragedy,” he said.
Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is the company that made Sheely’s helmet, as well as the NCAA.
Lawyers for Sheely’s family allege a representative from Kranos Corp., which does business as Schutt Sports, told the football team that the company’s new technology can prevent head injuries. C. Scott Toomey, a Philadelphia-based lawyer for the company, said there was nothing “unusual or overreaching about that statement” and the helmet had a label warning it could not prevent all head injuries.
Boynton granted Kranos’ motion to dismiss only for an allegation of strict liability for a manufacturing defect.
A lawyer for the NCAA was present at Friday’s two-and-a-half-hour hearing as an observer, but the organization did not submit a motion to dismiss. Instead, the NCAA filed a separate motion for summary judgment, arguing organizers of sporting activities cannot be held liable for injuries that occur during their sporting events.
A hearing on the NCAA’s motion could be held as early as April. The trial in the case is scheduled for next February.
The lawsuit seeks damages in an unspecified amount for negligent representation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, professional gross negligence and failure to warn, among other counts. The family is also seeking punitive damages.
John J. Kuchno, another assistant attorney general, urged the judge to move the case to Allegany County in part because the incident happened in Western Maryland.
“This is a big deal in Cumberland. A big deal,” he said. “[The plaintiffs] are alleging terrible things against the leading educational and cultural institution in Western Maryland.”
But even Toomey, representing co-defendant Kranos, objected to the change of venue, noting it would be more convenient for his Illinois-based client to travel to Rockville.
The Sheelys are represented locally by Stephen J. Nolan, a Towson solo practitioner.
Illinois-based Kranos is represented locally by Robert Dale Klein of Wharton Levin Ehrmantraut & Klein in Annapolis.