ORLANDO, Fla. -- Jurors on Wednesday started hearing arguments over whether University of Central Florida football player Ereck Plancher died during a workout because coaches pushed him too hard knowing he had a medical condition or whether it was from an unknown heart defect.
During opening arguments in the wrongful death trial, attorneys representing his parents said the 19-year-old died three years ago from complications of sickle cell trait after an excessive workout in which coach George O'Leary ordered water and trainers off the practice field.
They claim the university never told Plancher that he tested positive for the genetic problem. They also said coaches and trainers didn't follow proper emergency procedures after Plancher stumbled, gasped for breath and collapsed.
An attorney for UCF said he would show that Plancher died from a congenital heart defect following a moderate preseason practice.
Enock and Giselle Plancher in March 2009 sued UCF's athletic association and board of trustees. The lawsuit said O'Leary chastised Plancher as he struggled through his final workout a year earlier.
An autopsy found that Plancher died from complications of sickle cell trait, a condition that causes blood cells to become misshapen and disrupt the body's vascular system when it's put under extreme stress. Plancher went into cardiac arrest and later died at a hospital.
University of Central Florida Athletics Association Inc. attorney Dan Shapiro said he would provide evidence that there was plenty of water available to the players and that trainers never left the field and provided immediate emergency care.
Shapiro said Plancher did not die from negligence but from a pre-existing heart condition that was rare and unpredictable. He said if a simple serial section of the heart were taken during the autopsy it would have revealed the heart problem and exonerated his client.
Jurors were shown family pictures of Plancher along with his numerous football and academic awards. Both sides agreed he was a stellar student, outstanding athlete and that no one had anything bad to say about the teen. His parents sat stoically in court.
Both sides described the workout, ranging from grueling to easy, depending on which lawyer was telling the story. The 80 UCF football players lifted weights, did conditioning exercises at three agility stations and ran an obstacle course in the indoor Nicholson Fieldhouse. The temperature was 72 degrees with 50 percent humidity.
"This case is about a tragic but, more importantly, an unnecessary death that occurred on March 18, 2008," said Steve Yerrik, the parents' attorney who is asking the jury to find the private entity UCFAA negligent for the death.
The trial is expected to last three weeks.
A judge ruled in September 2010 that the UCFAA -- the school's athletic department, which operates independently from the university -- is not under the umbrella of being a state agency and is therefore not protected by Florida's $200,000 cap on civil case judgments. That opens it up to an unlimited damage award if found liable.
Evans has also ruled that the family can seek punitive damages if their lawyers can show that O'Leary didn't make water or trainers available during a pivotal stretch of Plancher's workout.