Bringing to resolution a lawsuit that sharpened the national debate around safety issues in youth football, Pop Warner has reached a settlement with Donnovan Hill, a Los Angeles-area player who was paralyzed while using a dangerous, if commonly seen, tackling technique that he alleges his coaches promoted.
The confidential settlement agreement was reached late last week, Hill's lawyer, Rob Carey, told ESPN.
Terms were not released, though Carey had said previously that Pop Warner was trying to settle the suit and had offered in excess of $1 million. He said his goal was to provide basic amenities for Hill, who lives with his mother in an apartment without a handicap-accessible bathroom.
"We are satisfied with the outcome and hope this lawsuit will help raise awareness of the available safeguards in youth sports to avoid injuries," lawyers for all parties said in a joint statement released Wednesday.
Carey declined further comment, as did lawyers for Pop Warner and the coaches.
The settlement came in the wake of a December ruling by a California judge that cleared the way for Hill to proceed to trial, which had been set to start May 11. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Shaller had rejected Pop Warner's argument that the lawsuit should be thrown out because Hill's mother, Crystal Dixon, had signed a pre-participation waiver acknowledging the risks of playing football.
At a time when injury concerns around youth football are under intense debate, the settlement avoids the scenario of Pop Warner having to defend its practices in a public venue. The organization would have been asking a jury to rule against a wheelchair-bound teenager whose life was forever altered by the kind of helmet-to-helmet hit often seen on fields across the U.S., at all levels of the game.
Hill was rendered a quadriplegic at age 13 while competing in the Pop Warner championship for Southern California, with the winner advancing to the 2011 national championships in Florida.
A two-way star for his Lakewood, Calif. program, Hill came up from his safety position to try to stop a ball carrier at the goal line. The running back went low and led with his head, as did Hill. The collision snapped Hill's neck.
Hill's lawsuit alleged that his coaches encouraged head-first tackling. He said he was punished when he objected to use of that technique in practice, and that he deployed it in games with no repercussions. In an Outside the Lines television story in 2013, his coaches offered conflicting accounts on whether they encouraged head-first tackling, with head coach Sal Hernandez saying he warned Hill against using it and assistant coach Manny Martinez defending the use of that technique.
More broadly, the lawsuit revealed the lack of safety protections facing all participants in Pop Warner.
Founded in 1929, Pop Warner advertises itself as a safety-first organization in which children play for coaches trained in proper tackling technique. But in a deposition, executive director Jon Butler conceded that the national office does not check whether coaches in fact receive such training.
Hernandez, a barber, told Outside The Lines that he took Pop Warner's mandatory course for head coaches but said in his deposition that he never followed through. Martinez, a Hollywood actor, also received no training.
Pop Warner and lawyers for the coaches argued that their behavior didn't rise to the level of gross negligence, the standard that must be established to take civil action against volunteer coaches. The judge declined to adopt that position or dismiss the national office from its exposure, underscoring the responsibility of national organizations to enforce rules they promulgate at the community level.
The settlement also resolves a related class-action lawsuit filed by Dixon, alleging she and other parents were misled by Pop Warner about the safety of their children playing the sport. Even after Hill was injured, Pop Warner continued to state on his website that no player had ever been catastrophically injured. The organization serves 325,000 football players and cheerleaders between the ages of 5 and 16.
"Any governing body in the youth sports industry, especially those in contact sports, should be paying attention," Carey said after the judge's ruling in December. "They need to know that if they make representations about safety or training, it better be true. And if you know of risks of playing a game, take all reasonable precautions to make sure those risks are mitigating. In a football context, that means training coaches in tackling, at a minimum."
Hill was at heightened risk of paralysis because of a congenital narrowing of the bones in the neck, his mother told ESPN in 2013. But that was not discovered until after he was injured; the standard, simple pre-participation physical exam that players undergo does not check for as much. Thus, he was more susceptible to catastrophic injury, which is rare in football, at least before high school.
The lawsuit also exposed the financial vulnerability of all of youth football's key parties in the case of a serious injury. In an interview last June, Dixon said Hill and his family had received no financial support from Pop Warner to date. Even with state assistance, they lacked the funds to purchase an electric wheelchair or handicap-accessible van, among other basic needs.
If Hill were hurt playing college football, those needs would have been covered by a $20 million insurance policy purchased by the NCAA. For young people who are paralyzed, lifetime medical care and other costs can reach that high.
Pop Warner has no such policy, and it purchased only $2 million in liability insurance in the event of a successful civil claim against the organization, Carey said in December. Additionally, Pop Warner has little in the way of additional resources to cover any settlement or judgment. Its most recent tax filing shows net assets had fallen to just $2.5 million by the end of 2013, with reserves dwindling as youth participation, and member fees, declined. If the suit went to trial, Carey had vowed that he would ask the court to forfeit to Hill, now 18, all assets of the national organization, including its marks.
The confidential agreement does not describe which defendants contributed to the settlement. Beyond Pop Warner itself, options for Hill's lawyer included pursuing the personal assets and, where available, the homeowners' insurance of the coaches, four of whom were named as defendants.