NCAA found not liable in death of former QB Cullen Finnerty

A jury in Indianapolis decided Wednesday that the NCAA is not responsible for the death of a former star college quarterback whose widow was suing the association for negligence.

Cullen Finnerty won three Division II national championships as the starting quarterback for Grand Valley State in the early 2000s. He died in May 2013 at age 30 after going missing while on vacation with his wife's family. An autopsy found that chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a disease caused by concussions and repeated blows to the head -- was a contributing factor in his death. His widow, Jennifer Finnerty, sued the NCAA, saying the association did not properly protect college athletes and warn them about the risks of head injuries while playing football.

Lawyers representing the NCAA argued that Cullen Finnerty's death was caused by other health problems and addictions that were not a result of the concussion he suffered in college or smaller blows to the head that occurred during his playing days. The association also has maintained for many years that it is not legally responsible for the health and safety of college athletes.

The jury agreed with the NCAA's arguments after a three-week trial that included testimony from outgoing president Mark Emmert and several medical experts, among others.

"The Association was not negligent, and the lawsuit was not supported by medical science linking Mr. Finnerty's death to college football," NCAA general counsel Scott Bearby said Wednesday in a statement. "We express our deepest sympathies to Mr. Finnerty's family and friends."

Jennifer Finnerty's lead attorney, Rob Dassow, said he was "obviously very disappointed" in the jury's verdict.

"This is a public health epidemic," Dassow said. "[The NCAA] continues to cast doubt and create doubt about the cause, side effects and symptoms of CTE."

Wednesday's verdict marks the second time in less than four months that the NCAA has successfully defended in a jury trial a claim that it was liable for the death of a former college football player. The widow of former USC linebacker Matthew Gee, Alana Gee, sued the NCAA in Los Angeles. Lawyers for Alana Gee and for Jennifer Finnerty argued in court that the men developed substance abuse problems as a result of the CTE and head injuries they suffered while playing college football. The NCAA's attorney disputed that there was medical evidence to show those issues were related to CTE.

The NCAA remains a defendant in dozens of similar cases that argue the Indianapolis-based central governing organization of college sports should bear some responsibility for the long-term health problems associated with head injuries athletes suffer while playing for their schools. Dassow said he represents at least 20 former football players who say they have had brain health issues as a result of playing college sports and that he plans to continue to pursue legal action against the NCAA in those cases.

In 2016, the NCAA agreed to settle a class-action concussion lawsuit, paying $70 million to monitor the medical conditions of former college athletes, another $5 million toward medical research and payments up to $5,000 toward individual players claiming injuries. The association also settled a lawsuit brought by the widow of a former Texas football player in 2018 for an undisclosed amount three days into a trial. The Gee and Finnerty cases are the first two lawsuits to reach a jury verdict.

Bearby said that the NCAA is working to enhance player safety throughout college sports and that the organization intends to continue to "aggressively defend against similar cases that wrongly target the association."