Arland Bruce launches the first lawsuit against the CFL over concussions; more may follow

55 Yard Line

The threats of legal action against the CFL from last month have come to pass, with former player Arland Bruce III reportedly filing a lawsuit in Vancouver Wednesday. Terry Ott broke the news of the threats at The Concussion Blog in June and broke the news of Bruce's lawsuit there Wednesday. Here's the crucial part of his piece:

The first lawsuit brought against the CFL member teams and others for concussion injury has been filed in Vancouver, British Columbia in the Supreme Court on behalf of Arland Bruce III, a veteran of 12 seasons as a speedy wide receiver who last played for the Montreal Alouettes in 2013 and also starred on two different Grey Cup winning teams as well as spending the 2003 season with the San Fransisco 49ers.

Bruce, noted in the claim as an “unemployed football player,” is the holder of the record for most receptions in a CFL game (16) and is a three-time CFL All Star.

The claim, so far for unspecified monetary damages, asks for general damages, special damages, general and special damages “in trust” for the care and services provided by his family, and punitive and aggravated damages.

In the claim filed by the Vancouver law firm of Slater Vecchio LLP and lawyer Robyn L. Wishart, it is alleged that Bruce suffered a concussion and was knocked unconscious in a game played in Regina, Saskatchewan on September 29, 2012 between the BC Lions — Bruce’s team at the time — and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Bruce subsequently returned to play for the Lions in a playoff game on November 18, 2012 and it is alleged that he was still suffering from his previous concussion and it is also alleged he suffered additional concussive and sub-concussive hits during the Nov. 18 game.

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What's perhaps most interesting is that Bruce's claim isn't just about him suffering concussions, but about him being allowed to play despite teams knowing he was dealing with concussion symptoms. If that's the case, that's severely problematic for the CFL. Yes, there have been cases of players suiting up (or trying to) despite possible concussion symptoms, but there hasn't been any conclusive proof of a team playing someone they knew was concussed yet. If Bruce can prove that (which may be difficult), that would go against stated league policy and potentially cause a lot of trouble for the CFL. Interestingly enough, his claim cites a May 2011 piece on this site (about the multi-league Canadian concussion summit) as proof that the league's comments have been different from their teams' alleged actions. From Ott's piece:

From a copy of the claim, not proven in a court of law, it alleges in part:

The plaintiff reported concussion signs and symptoms to the BC Lions medical personnel and coaching staff including but not limited to the following: fogginess; headaches; sensitivity to light; sensitivity to sound; memory loss; confusion;
dizziness; anxiety; and personality changes.

After the 2012 season, Bruce left the BC Lions and was signed for the 2013 season by the Montreal Alouettes.

Also from the claim: “Further, despite the fact that the plaintiff was displaying the ongoing effects of concussion to medical professionals and coaching staff, he was permitted to return to play in the 2013 season for Montreal.”

In a 2011 Yahoo! Canada Sports 55 Yard Line article by Andrew Bucholtz, and so noted in the claim, commissioner Mark Cohon said “I am convinced that every concussion is being reported and dealt with. I trust our doctors. I trust our therapists. I trust our teams to report that.”

And in the 2011 Canadian Football League concussion “Campaign” directive to the CFL clubs from Cohon advised to “err on the side of extreme caution” when dealing with suspected concussion injury.

Bruce's claims haven't been proven in court, but they should be taken very seriously. If he's able to prove that he reported ongoing concussion symptoms and was still allowed to play, that would be a huge black mark for the CFL, one that could bring the league's safety policies under heavy fire. Remember, the players lobbied for independent neurologists in this last CBA, but didn't get them, with CFL president and chief operating officer Michael Copeland telling 55-Yard Line in May that "Our medical doctors are among the very best in the country. They lead the discussion in this regard. The commitment they have to our players never should be questioned." Well, if Bruce is able to get anywhere with this lawsuit, that commitment may be in for a lot of questions.

It's fascinating that it's a recent player who launched the first lawsuit, as that's dramatically different from what happened in the NFL. Most of the concussion lawsuits there started with long-ago players who had been suffering for decades, and only picked up more recent ones as they gathered more momentum; Bruce played as recently as last season, and mostly in an era where the CFL was supposed to be better at dealing with concussions. There may be a few reasons for that, though. For one, while many NFL alumni were adamantly pushing for redress even before the lawsuits, most former CFL players were being more conciliatory as recently as 2012. The CFL Alumni Association has been notably reticent on concussions, too, even registering opposition to a 2011 concussion study of former Hamilton Tiger-Cats' players, and CFLAA executive director Leo Ezerins is named as a defendant in the Bruce lawsuit. That may have something to do with why this comes from a more recent player rather than a long-ago one.

Perhaps even more notably, though, Bruce has non-concussion reasons to take a swing at the CFL. Despite a 12-year career that saw him record 11,609 receiving yards and a strong 2013 campaign in Montreal (64 catches for 851 yards), he was essentially drummed out of the CFL this offseason over his homophobic comments about gay NFL prospect Michael Sam. The league fined and denounced Bruce, but didn't ban him; the Alouettes elected to cut him two weeks later, though, and no other team picked him up.

Was that solely about his comments? Not necessarily; Bruce is a 36-year-old import at a position where teams often like to go young and/or Canadian, and he's also a player who's created plenty of controversies over the years, factors that may have convinced teams he wasn't worth the risk. Still, in a league where a team's willing to gamble on fellow 36-year-old controversy-stirrer Chad Johnson (which is actually working out decently so far despite Johnson's lack of CFL experience), Bruce's continued unemployment is curious. Regardless of whether he was drummed out of the league or not, though, he would seem to have good reason for a grudge against the CFL even before concussions were considered.

Will Bruce's lawsuit lead to others? The smart bet would be yes. Former players from longer ago, including Eric Allen and Phil Colwell, have already been talking about suing the CFL, and many others may join in once this gets more publicity. There are substantial numbers of former CFL players who have publicly spoken about their ongoing battles with concussion symptoms, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, the awful disease that has sparked so much investigation into concussions) has been found in at least four former CFL players. (Interestingly enough, there's been lots of promising research on identifying CTE in living brains; it's unclear just what stage that's at right now, but it may well come up if Bruce's case goes to trial.)

There are plenty of other CFL alumni who seem to have been affected by concussions, too. For example, that 2011 study of former Tiger-Cats found that 24 of the 25 participants scored below average in key brain functions on an ImPACT test. That doesn't conclusively prove anything, but it does suggest that the numbers of CFLers who have been affected by concussions are substantial, and Bruce's lawsuit may well spur others to go after the league. Concussions have been a massive issue in this league for the last few years but this is the first time they've led to legal action. It seems unlikely it will be the last, though.

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