Judge orders jury trial in Stringer suit

The family of former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer won an important legal victory Monday against the manufacturer of the helmets and shoulder pads he wore when he died nearly eight years ago from complications of heatstroke.

A federal judge in Ohio concluded that manufacturer Riddell Inc. had a duty to warn Stringer that its helmets and shoulder pads could contribute to heat stroke when used in hot conditions.

As a result, U.S. District Court judge John D. Holschuh ordered a Nov. 2 jury trial to determine whether Riddell's failure to warn Stringer comprises legal culpability for his death.

Regardless of that eventual outcome, Stringer family spokesman James Gould termed Monday's ruling "landmark" because it makes the connection between the equipment and heat stroke. Gould said the best way to uphold Stringer's legacy is to "make sure what happened to Korey doesn't happen to any other football player -- from the National Football League all the way down to kids in Pop Warner."

"This decision should go a long way to ensure it doesn't," Gould added.

A Riddell spokesperson did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Stringer collapsed after a training camp practice on July 31, 2001 and died the next day in Mankato, Minn.

His wife, Kelci, settled legal claims in 2003 against the Minnesota doctor who treated him. She also settled a lawsuit earlier this year against the NFL, which agreed to support the creation of a heat illness prevention program for athletes of all ages.

Gould said the case against Riddell likely represents the final step of the family's legal pursuits.

"The timing of this is really compelling," Gould said. "Coaches all around the country, at every level, are getting their equipment ready now for camps. This really brings the issue to the forefront."

Holschuh wrote it was "reasonably foreseeable ... that a user of [Riddell's] helmets and shoulder pads during extremely hot and humid conditions might suffer from a heat stroke." Thus, Holschuh concluded, Riddell "owed Stringer a duty to warn."

That conclusion paves the way for the jury trial next fall. It does not legally require Riddell to label its equipment immediately. But Stringer's attorney, Paul DeMarco, said it should provide ample incentive to do so in order to avoid future legal liability.

"Any manufacturer who sells football helmets and shoulder pads without a heat stroke warning, knowing they're being used in extreme heat, does so at its peril," DeMarco said. "The same goes for leagues, coaches, and equipment managers who permit such equipment to be used without heat stroke warnings."

Kevin Seifert covers the NFC North for ESPN.com.