The family of former California football player Ted Agu filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Regents of the University of California on Tuesday, alleging “reckless and negligent behavior” by the staff toward an athlete known to have sickle cell trait.
The lawsuit filed in California Superior Court in Oakland repeatedly says that the university was negligent for hiring and retaining trainer Robert Jackson, who previously worked at Central Florida, where he was the sole certified athletic trainer present when football player Ereck Plancher died following conditioning drills in March 2008.
The suit says that Jackson was the most experienced trainer present when Agu died after experiencing “extreme fatigue” during an offseason training run in Berkeley on Feb. 7. The family's attorneys argue that, like Plancher, Agu had sickle cell trait and should not have been put through a “lethal conditioning drill.”
“The same thing happened here,” said attorney Steve Yerrid, who also represented Plancher's family. “What you see here is a bona fide tragedy.”
Yerrid stood on the steps outside the Alameda County Courthouse with trial lawyer Brian Panish and Agu's sobbing mother and father, Emilia and Ambrose, in front of three oversized photos of the former Cal defensive end. Agu's older brother and two of his three older sisters also attended the news conference.
The family did not speak to reporters at the request of their attorneys.
Panish said there have been no settlement talks with the university and he expects the case to go to trial in 12 to 16 months. He said a jury would decide damages, which he requested to be “substantial.”
The Alameda County Coroner's office said in April that Agu died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is an excessive thickening of the heart muscle. Yerrid and Panish said Agu's death was brought on by the sickle cell trait and not a heart condition.
The NCAA requires universities to test players for sickle cell, and Yerrid and Panish said Cal had been aware of Agu's condition since he arrived in 2010. Cal did not have an immediate response to the lawsuit.
Many athletes with sickle cell can play their whole careers without complications. But as the NCAA notes on its website, sickle cell “can affect some athletes during periods of intense exercise, when the inherited condition causes red blood cells to warp into stiff and sticky sickle shapes that block blood vessels and deprive vital organs and muscles of oxygen.”
Yerrid said that the workout was supervised by Jackson and strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington and was different from any previous one Agu had participated in. He said Agu was tied to a rope along with teammates running up a hill outside the football stadium at “the request of the training staff.”
Yerrid said Agu experienced dizziness, shortness of breath, loss of balance and other signs of extreme fatigue. He said trainers took too long to respond and were not properly trained to care for a player in the sickling process.
Cal team physician Dr. Casey Batten said in February that the medical staff saw Agu had difficulty completing the workout and he was transferred by cart about 150 yards to the stadium.
“He was on the back of the cart, he was talking, he was hydrating, he did not exhibit any labored breathing or other signs until he got to the north tunnel,” Batten said.
The university has said Agu collapsed when he got to the medical facility at the Simpson Center at the stadium, emergency medical personnel were alerted and Agu was given CPR. He was taken to Alta Bates Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Batten said Agu never had any previous problems with workouts or practice at Cal.
Agu, a 21-year-old defensive end from Bakersfield, was going to be a fifth-year senior this season. He arrived on campus as a walk-on before earning a scholarship last year. He played seven games last season, recording six tackles.
Agu's family attorneys made repeated references to the Plancher case in their lawsuit. But unlike in Florida, they said there's no cap on the amount of damages that can be awarded in such cases in California.
A jury found Central Florida's athletic association was negligent in Plancher's death and awarded his parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, $5 million apiece — plus the cost of attorneys' fees, which Yerrid said brings the total to about $15 million. UCF and its insurance company, Great American Assurance Company, appealed the verdict in May 2012.
A ruling by a Florida appeals court reduced the damage award to $200,000, citing sovereign immunity afforded to Florida state agencies in civil judgments. The case is on appeal in the Florida Supreme Court.