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A federal judge is refusing for now to accept a proposed settlement between the NFL and retired football players who sued over concussion-related injuries, saying $765 million might not be enough.
In a ruling filed Tuesday in Philadelphia, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody said she feared that the league's payout offer might be inadequate to cover claims by the roughly 20,000 people eligible. She ordered lawyers to provide her with more information on how they arrived at that figure.
"I am primarily concerned that not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis or their [families] will be paid," Brody wrote in her ruling. "In the absence of additional supporting evidence, I have concerns about the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the settlement."
The two sides now must either convince the judge their analysis holds up or return to the negotiating table.
"We look forward to working with the court and special master to address their concerns, as they rightfully ensure all class members are protected," Sol Weiss and Christopher Seeger, lead attorneys for the players, said in a statement.
The NFL also voiced optimism. "We will work with plaintiffs' attorneys to supply that information promptly to the court," league officials said.
The plaintiffs include lesser-known ex-players, such as Kevin Turner, who spent eight seasons as a fullback for the Eagles and the New England Patriots and now has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and stars such as quarterback Jim McMahon, who led the Chicago Bears to a championship, played for the Eagles later in his 15-year NFL career, and now suffers from early-stage dementia.
Brody's decision came a week after the league and lawyers representing the former players unveiled the details of an intricate plan, negotiated over months, to compensate victims of head trauma.
The proposal, which would award up to $5 million each to longtime players with the most serious cognitive disorders, has received mixed reviews from the more than 4,500 plaintiffs whose lawsuits have found their way to Brody's court.
Some former players have balked at the $765 million offer, saying it represents a drop in the bucket of the league's more than $9 billion in annual revenue - though some of the sickest players have welcomed it as their best shot at receiving help with their treatment.
Under the terms put forth last week, the $765 million would be broken into several smaller funds, including a $675 million monetary award fund designed to last for 65 years. It was this largest pot of money with which Brody took issue.
The settlement proposal calls for compensating retired players on a sliding scale that would consider a player's age, number of seasons played, and whether an injury after retirement might have contributed to his cognitive diagnosis. Current and future NFL players would be ineligible.
Maximum awards of $5 million would go to players under 45 who played five or more seasons and required extensive treatment over their lifetimes for conditions such as Parkinson's disease or ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease.
Payouts diminishing along a scale would be provided for older players or those who played fewer seasons and had less serious diseases. If the fund runs out before its 65-year lifespan, the settlement calls for the league to pitch in up to $37.5 million more.
In her ruling, Brody called the agreement "a commendable effort" born of "good faith, arm's-length negotiations between adversaries."
Nonetheless, with 22,000 former players, their families, or representatives of their estates potentially eligible to file claims, she wrote, she worried the money could soon run out.
"Even if only 10 percent of retired NFL football players eventually receive a qualifying diagnosis, it is still difficult to see how the monetary award fund would have the funds available over its lifespan to pay all claimants at these significant award levels," Brody wrote.
The proposal would also create a $75 million pot for retired players who had not been found to have a neurocognitive disorder to receive baseline testing in order to measure their conditions over time. Brody questioned whether that amount was enough.
The settlement also calls for $10 million to fund medical research and education, and a separate $112 million in legal fees, not included in the $765 million, that the NFL has agreed to pay to the players' lawyers.
In a conference call with reporters last week, Seeger, the players' lawyer, said he felt confident both sides had done their homework before filing the proposal.
"We had our actuaries, the NFL had their actuaries," he said. "I think everyone will see that the work here has been done correctly."