Rugby: Brain injury claims against governing bodies may exceed £300m

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Former rugby players diagnosed with brain injuries could get millions of pounds from the sport’s governing bodies to pay for their care.

More than 200 ex-players have accused rugby governing bodies of failing to protect them against brain injuries.

Legal experts said the claims against the organisations could exceed £300m.

World Rugby, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) said they constantly strive to safeguard players.

The class action suit is being taken against all three governing bodies.

Former stars involved in the claim include former British and Irish Lion and Wales captain Ryan Jones, England international and World Cup winner Steve Thompson and former Wales international Alix Popham.

Mr Jones revealed last year that he had joined the legal action after being diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Experts believe the amounts of money involved could be substantial, particularly if long periods of care are required.

However, any legal action could be complicated and protracted, and any conclusion may be years away.

Crispin Cormack won the league and cup with Pontypridd in the 1990s, played for London Welsh and toured with Wales in Australia.

He now specialises in serious injury cases, including concussion, and believes the claims could reach into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Mr Cormack said: “I would say a conservative estimate, personally, and I don’t know everything about the claims and I’ve obviously not been privy to the medical reports, but if we take the worst possible scenario, I’d say a minimum of £300m and it could be skyrocketing upwards.”

Jonathan Compton, a qualified barrister and solicitor who specialises in litigation at DHM Stallard, has advised large sports organisations in the past.

Mr Compton said: “I would expect any damages, because they affect younger people over a longer period of time, could be substantial.”

He said he had no reason to doubt Mr Cormack’s estimate.

“Given the numbers involved, I don’t think that is an unreasonable figure – you’re looking at a substantial number of people,” he said.

Former dual-code professional Lenny Woodard, 46, is one of the many former rugby stars who have been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

The Pontypool born star, who won five Wales Rugby League caps and played for Wales in South Africa, now sits on a committee representing players involved in the claim.

He said he faced the prospect of having to retire in the next few years and did not want his partner or children to pay for what could be decades of care.

Mr Woodard said: “I was diagnosed in 2021, slowly but surely I see things getting worse.

“There’s a misconception that we’re trying to get a pay-out out of greed – but for me personally, and I’m sure I speak on behalf of the others, we’re just making sure our families aren’t burdened with the cost of treating these diagnoses.

“I’m 46 now, in nine years time, at 55, I’ll require full-time care then. If I live to 75, that’s 20 years of full-time care. If you’re looking at £1,500 a week on current figures, we’re approaching millions of pounds.

“I don’t want to go into any care setting, and I certainly don’t want to be there for 20 years, but that is the reality we have to plan for.”

What does the law say?

Personal injury claims are based on two principles: general damages and special damages.

General damages are set by judicial guidelines, and claimants with a “very severe” injury resulting from brain damage could receive up to about £400,000.

Special damages are based on the financial losses incurred by that injury and take into account things such as loss of earnings and any future care, this can total millions of pounds.

However, any legal action can be a lengthy, complicated process where resolution is not guaranteed.

The burden of proof rests with the claimants in these kinds of cases, who must prove their case on the balance of probabilities.

The rugby union class action has been compared to the situation in the National Football League (NFL) in the US.

In 2013, the NFL agreed a multimillion-dollar settlement with retirees who alleged their on-field concussions had caused brain injuries.

The NFL’s concussion fund has paid out more than $856 million (£600m) to thousands of former professionals.

However, as part of the settlement the NFL did not admit liability, or that the players’ injuries were caused by football.

But the legal system in the US is different to the legal system in the UK.

‘Care deeply’

World Rugby said it had nothing to add to a statement it issued on behalf of itself, the Welsh Rugby Union and Rugby Football Union in December 2022, when it said: “We can confirm that on 24 November, World Rugby, WRU and the RFU received notification from Rylands solicitors, on behalf of 169 former professional rugby union players, requesting an extension to the court deadline to serve us with full details of their claims.

“Rugby is a sport that supports lifelong health and wellbeing benefits for participants at every level. It is loved by millions of current and former players around the globe.

“We care deeply about every member of the rugby family and have been saddened by the brave personal accounts of former players who are struggling with any health issues. We wish to let them know that we care, we listen, and we never stand still when it comes to further cementing rugby as the most progressive sport on athlete welfare.

“Acting on the latest science, evidence and independent expert guidance, we constantly strive to safeguard and support all our players – future, current, and former. Rugby is a leader in the prevention, management and identification of head impacts and World Rugby also proactively funds transformational research, embraces innovation and explores technology that can make the sport as accessible, inclusive and safe as possible for all participants.

“As has been the position since December 2020 when these claims were first made, we remain unable to comment on the specifics of the legal action as we continue to await the full details of the claims being made against us.”

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