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Plaintiff lawyer welcomes appeal in UCF trial

The attorney for the family of a University of Central Florida football player who was awarded a $10 million wrongful death judgment said Friday that he welcomes the university's plans for appeal.

Steven Yerrid served as the lead attorney representing 18-year-old Ereck Plancher's family and said the verdict by the jury after a 14-day civil trial will serve as a signal to the college athletic community at-large, that the care of athletes should be put before winning on the playing field.

The two-year legal saga that followed the preseason workout death of Plancher three years ago ended late Thursday night when a jury found the UCF Athletic Association negligent in his death. Plancher died after a March 2008 workout.

"Our goal was to make a difference so other parents don't have to suffer a horrific experience of burying a child," Yerrid said. "It speaks to bigger issue that winning is important, but the welfare of the athlete always has to come first. In most cases that is true in college athletics. But for those where it's not the case, it's a wake-up call."

Enock and Gisele Plancher declined to comment.

UCF spokesman Grant Heston said that the school will appeal Thursday night's judgment and believes "the appeals court will side with us."

"The jury's decision to not allow gross negligence and punitive damages is a vindication of the actions and reputations of our athletics leadership," Heston said Friday. "The allegations about water and trainers being withheld during the workout were proved to be baseless during the trial. The leadership of our athletics department continues to have the university's confidence."

Plancher collapsed and died following conditioning drills at the school's football complex in March 2008. Orange County medical examiner Joshua Stephany and three experts hired by Plancher family attorneys testified he died from complications of sickle cell trait. Plancher is one of more than 20 college football players to die since 2000 in offseason conditioning workouts.

The jurors in civil trial found the UCF Athletic Association was negligent and failed to do everything possible to save Plancher's life. It entered the amount of damages it believed should be awarded to Plancher's parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher. The total was $5 million apiece.

But the jury also decided there was no "clear and convincing evidence" that UCF's athletic association was guilty of gross negligence and determined it should not face punitive damages.

The Plancher family filed their wrongful death lawsuit against UCF in March 2009. When the trial began last month, their attorneys presented evidence during from four former UCF football players, including a former team captain, who all recalled a strenuous workout than UCF coaches and school officials originally said took place. The players also testified that Plancher was struggling throughout, gasping for breath at times.

They also alleged that no water or trainers were present during what one of the players said was a "punishment" workout for players coming back from spring vacation out of shape. They also accused coach George O'Leary of cursing Plancher shortly before he collapsed and had to be carried outside by teammates.

UCF officials contended from the day that Plancher died in 2008 that the school did everything necessary to save his life. During their case they had players that were at the workout testify that water was available to players and argued that Plancher knew he had sickle cell trait and that it was actually a heart ailment that caused his death.

O'Leary and athletic director Keith Tribble originally said that the workout last 10 minutes in duration and that Plancher never was seen struggling. They amended those statements to say the workout lasted longer, but O'Leary testified during UCF's case that he only saw Plancher fall once at the end of a sprint, but never saw him in distress.

UCF's athletic department is insured by a $21 million policy, but it is unclear whether their insurance company would cover the judgment. Judge Robert Evans ruled early in the case that UCF's athletic department was private and not under the umbrella of the university as a protected state agency. Under Florida statutes, state entities are only liable for up to $200,000 in civil judgments.

Yerrid said prior to the start of the trial they filed a $4.5 million settlement offer to UCF that got no response. Florida law says that if an eventual judgment exceeds any settlement offer by 125 percent, the defendant is responsible for all court costs and attorney fees.

Yerrid estimated their costs for representing the Plancher family is at least $500,000 and that they are do another $1.5 million in fees on top of that UCF is responsible for now.

"It's not a winning strategy that they have employed," Yerrid said. "At some point they have to understand reforming their conduct is more important that refusing to lose.

"And by the way, they haven't been right on anything yet. So they are batting zero. I'm very confident they will continue to bat zero. We had an excellent, experienced trial judge. I'm confident that his rulings will be upheld."

Yerrid said the ruling is a win across the board for college athletes.

"We're pleased the system works and will have a beneficial effect across the world of college athletics, not just in football," he said. "The emphasis will be not just sickle cell trait, but spread to other athletes. But if an athlete has a condition that can be detrimental, it's our hope that it will be guarded for athletes at all levels of participation."