The family of a deceased Ole Miss football player filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday against the NCAA, the University of Mississippi, coach Houston Nutt as well as several staffers and medical personnel.
Bennie "Buster" Abram died in February 2010 following an early offseason workout due to complications from sickle cell trait. His parents alleged in a 32-page document filed in Mississippi circuit court that the defendants were so "reckless" that their actions rise to "the level of crimes such as" negligent criminal homicide and involuntary manslaughter.
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CBSSports.com first reported the family's intent to sue in late January. However, Mississippi state law requires a 90-day notice in such cases if state employees are involved.
The lawsuit further states that Ole Miss found that Abram had tested positive for the condition on or around Feb. 1, 2010, but that he was never informed. It is stated that Buster's parents were unaware of the condition. Bennie Abram Jr., the father of the player, told CBSSports.com shortly after his son's death that there is a history of sickle cell trait in the family.
Bennie Abram III, a walk-on, collapsed shortly after an early-morning workout on Feb. 19, 2010. Six hours later he was pronounced dead. Three months later, an autopsy determined sickle cell trait had contributed to his death. At the time, Abram was the 21st NCAA football player to die from a non-traumatic event since 2000. Eleven of those deaths had come in Division I-A. Sickle cell trait remains the leading killer of Division I football players since that year.
The NCAA did not mandate testing for the condition until last year. That move resulted from a legal settlement between the family of deceased Rice player Dale Lloyd II and the NCAA in 2009. Eugene Egdorf, the lead attorney in Abram's lawsuit, represented the Lloyd family. Dale Lloyd died in 2006 as a result of sickle cell trait following a workout.
"[Bennie's] death is a tragedy that should have been prevented," Egdorf said in a release announcing Tuesday's suit. "Every sickle cell expert in the world will tell you that the only way this trait can cause a student-athlete's death is when they are put through overly strenuous workouts like the one Bennie went through before he died."
Ole Miss failed to follow NCAA guidelines covering the intensity of offseason practices, according to the suit. The suit also states that the NCAA is "culpable and legally responsible" for the death because it failed to distribute educational videos and other guidelines to coaches, trainers and players per the terms of the Lloyd settlement prior to Abram's death.
The NCAA is also blamed for failing to use its power to regulate offseason workouts. The latest failing, the suit alleges, was in January when 13 Iowa players were hospitalized suffering from rhabdomyolysis, a condition that causes the skeletal breakdown of muscle due to overexertion. An in-house investigation by Iowa found no wrongdoing by coaches, staff or players. No one was disciplined, however a long-time drill used by Iowa was discontinued.
When Abram was brought to the hospital 15 months ago, he was conscious but developed a fever and was hypothermic before going into cardiac arrest, according to team doctor Jeffrey Dennis, one of the defendants named in the suit.
Athletes who are afflicted with sickle cell trait can lead normal everyday and athletic lives. National trainers' groups advise a gradual warm-up for afflicted athletes over a period of days so their bodies can get acclimated to strenuous workouts. Sickle cell trait is an inherited condition that occurs in approximately eight percent (one in 12) of the country's African-American population. Caucasians are susceptible at a much lower rate. During periods of extreme exertion, blood cells can "sickle" causing a log jam in vessels thus restricting blood flow.
A notice letter sent to prospective defendants in January said the suit would seek $10 million in damages. The suit, as filed on Tuesday, does not mention a dollar figure. It seeks compensatory damages for loss of future income, emotional and mental anguish as well as funeral, legal and medical expenses.
"We will leave it to the jury to determine the appropriate damages award," Egdorf told CBSSports.com.
Also named in the suit are Ole Miss AD Pete Boone, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, former co-offensive coordinator Dave Rader and Nutt's brother Danny, the assistant AD for player development. January's notice letter stated that Nutt is, "ultimately responsible for all actions (and inactions) of his staff."
Boone released a statement in January saying medical protocol and emergency action plans had been followed in treating Abram.