A jury issued a not-guilty verdict Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by the family of a catastrophically injured high school football player against the health system that cleared him to play one week after suffering a concussion.
In September 2014, Robert Back, then 16 years old, collapsed on the sideline with a near-fatal brain injury during a Belt (Mont.) High School game after receiving clearance to play by an athletic trainer supplied by Benefis Heath System. Back is now a quadriplegic, unable to speak or care for himself.
This week's verdict, rendered after 13 days of testimony and two and a half hours of jury deliberation, absolves Benefis of millions of dollars in damages sought by the Back family. “While Benefis Health System is pleased with the jury's finding that we are not responsible or liable for Robert Back's injuries, we continue to be deeply saddened by the tragic injuries Robert suffered," Benefis offered in a statement, as reported by ABC Fox Montana. "We wish Robert and his family nothing but the best for the future."
Though the Backs lost their case, the trial made clear a lack of communication among health care providers and coaches following Robert's initial concussive injury. Benefis athletic trainer Jessica Hansen testified that she was unaware Back had been pulled from the previous game due to a concussion, but rather thought a doctor office visit was due to flu symptoms and dehydration. An email from Hansen clearing Back to play was presented by plaintiffs' attorney.
The doctor and nurse who were involved with that visit — and the last witnesses to testify for the defense — said Robert's parents sought "return to play" clearance less than a week after Robert's injury, but that they recommended he not play, according to the Great Falls Tribune. The Backs' attorney argued that the responsibility for the injury rested with medical professionals, not parents and coaches.
"There were so many steps missed," said Shannon Back, Robert's stepmother and primary caregiver. "There were so many things with the school, with the trainers, that just could so easily prevented this, and us too. I mean, all I can say is, anytime a mom has intuition, just don't ignore it."