PHILADELPHIA -- A federal appeals court has upheld an estimated $1 billion plan by the NFL to settle thousands of concussion lawsuits filed by former players, thereby potentially ending a troubled chapter in league history.
The decision released Monday comes nearly a year after a district judge approved the revised settlement. If there are no further appeals -- to either a full panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia within two weeks or the Supreme Court within 90 days -- former players already diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions could begin receiving benefits within three or four months, a plaintiffs' attorney said.
Critics appealing the settlement argued that any deal should include future payments for CTE. The appellate judges acknowledged those points in the 69-page ruling but found the settlement was for the greater good of all players.
In a statement, an NFL spokesman called the appeals court decisions "a significant step in implementing the clubs' commitment to provide compensation to retired players who are experiencing cognitive or neurological issues."
The settlement would cover more than 20,000 NFL retirees for the next 65 years. The league estimates that 6,000 former players, or nearly three in 10, could develop Alzheimer's disease or moderate dementia. Fewer than 200 of those retirees opted out of the settlement, while 99 percent approved.
As part of the settlement, the NFL admitted no fault. A league official speaking to Congress recently acknowledged for the first time a definite link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease found in dozens of former players after their deaths. The appeals court said that admission was not grounds to overturn the settlement.
"This settlement will provide significant and immediate relief to retired players living with the lasting scars of a NFL career, including those suffering from some of the symptoms associated with CTE," Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote, noting the NFL's admission of a "certain" link between football and CTE. "We must hesitate before rejecting that bargain based on an unsupported hope that sending the parties back to the negotiating table would lead to a better deal."
Ambro wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
The league has been dogged for years by complaints that it hid the risks of repeated concussions in order to return players to the field. The settlement deal means the NFL might never have to disclose what and when it knew about the risks and treatment of concussions.
Players' lawyers who negotiated the deal say the settlement will help families get needed financial awards or medical testing that might take years if the case went to trial, a point the appeals court accepted. The ruling comes less than a month after lead plaintiff and former Philadelphia Eagle Kevin Turner died at 46 after battling Lou Gehrig's disease for several years.
"We are pleased with the Third Circuit's decision to completely uphold the District Court's approval of the settlement," Christopher Seeger, co-lead counsel for the former players, said in a statement. "This extraordinary settlement's implementation has been delayed enough by this small group of objectors, whose arguments have been exhaustively examined and overruled by both the District Court and Third Circuit. We hope they will consider the over 20,000 retired players and their families that support this agreement before filing additional appeals that will only extend these delays further."
Attorney Steven Molo, who represented some players opposing the deal, said, "We are disappointed in the court's decision. We're reviewing the opinion and considering our options."
The options include appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court or suggesting that a panel of all the circuit judges reconsider the ruling of the three-judge panel.
Those challenging the deal complained it does not cover mood and behavioral disorders that some researchers link to CTE. Ambro said it would be an "uphill battle" to prove the link to CTE but said the agreement calls for reviews "in good faith" by the parties every 10 years to consider new scientific findings.
"This result was reasonable. Mood and behavioral symptoms are common in the general population and have multifactor causation and many other risk factors," Ambro wrote. "Retired players tend to have many of these risk factors, such as sleep apnea, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, a high BMI, chronic pain and major lifestyle changes."
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody approved the deal after twice sending it back to lawyers over concerns the fund might run out. The total NFL payout over 65 years, including interest and $112 million sought for lawyer fees, is expected to be more than $1 billion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.