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The family of former Lely High School football player Ereck Plancher may still be able to collect millions in damages directly from the school's athletic department.
The Florida Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to consider arguments in the ongoing litigation between the Plancher family and the UCF Athletics Association. The appellate court's ruling could have an impact on every public university in the state of Florida.
Plancher died after UCF offseason conditioning drills in March 2008. His parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit and were awarded $10 million in damages by an Orange County jury in June 2011.
The UCF Athletics Association appealed, arguing the organization should be treated as a state agency and be eligible for the state's sovereign-immunity clause capping payouts $200,000. Any additional payments must be approved by the Legislature, which rarely awards claims because it is considered an undue burden on taxpayers.
The Plancher attorneys contend the UCF athletic department operated as a private organization and carried insurance coverage that indicated it expected to be subject to unlimited damages.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled in favor UCFAA in August 2013, slashing the damages the athletics program owed Plancher's family.
Plancher attorneys appealed the decision, and the Florida Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it would review the issue.
"I have spoken with the Planchers, and they're elated the Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear their son's case," said J.D. Dowell, one of the attorneys representing the Plancher family. "It has been a long and difficult case, and they're thankful it is moving forward."
UCF officials said they are confident the Fifth District Court of Appeal made the correct ruling.
"We believe the opinion from the Fifth District Court of Appeal was thoughtful and well-reasoned," UCF spokesman Grant Heston said. "We are hopeful the Florida Supreme Court will uphold that opinion, one that is of great importance to public universities in Florida."
The Plancher attorneys must file their first brief in the appeal Sept. 8, and UCF Athletics Association attorneys must respond within 20 days. The court indicated it did not intend to hear oral arguments in the case, instead opting to review the arguments made before the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Fees related to the original Plancher jury ruling continue to climb and have reached nearly $15 million.
UCFAA has two insurance policies that could cover damages up to $21 million. Attorneys representing the insurance companies have been leading the UCFAA appeal efforts.
The Florida Supreme Court's ruling would have an impact on other public universities throughout the state. Every school in the state, including the University of Florida and Florida State University, signed a brief in support of UCFAA's appeal to the Fifth District Court of Appeal arguing athletic-association direct-support organizations should be eligible for sovereign immunity even though it wasn't explicitly listed in the original law passed by the Legislature creating the groups.
UF has one of the highest-profile athletic associations in the state.
The athletic associations became popular in Florida as a way of shielding donors from the scrutiny they could expect giving to the main university. Plancher attorneys argued this meant the groups should be treated as private entities and lost their right to be treated as state agencies. UCFAA attorneys countered the organization was completely controlled by state public employees, including UCF President John Hitt.
Orange County Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans, who first ruled in favor of the Plancher family on the sovereign-immunity issue before the trial, said it was a difficult decision and expected it to be revisited by the appeal court.
Plancher was an 18-year-old wide receiver who collapsed after offseason conditioning drills supervised by UCF's coaching staff in March 2008.
UCF officials argued they did everything possible to save his life. Plancher attorneys countered his death was caused by complications from sickle-cell trait and the UCFAA staff failed to follow its own procedures that could have saved his life.