Ohio: Duty to Warn that Football Helmet and Pads Could Cause Heat Stroke

In July 2009, the Southern District of Ohio decided, on the defendant-manufacturers’ motion for summary judgment, that a manufacturer of football equipment has a duty to warn that wearing full pads and a helmet could cause heat stroke. That case followed the well-publicized death of Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings in 2001. Stringer v. National Football League, et al., No. 2:03-cv-665, 2009 WL 6885869 (S.D. Ohio Jul. 10, 2009).

Following Stringer’s death, his widow brought suit. After the summary judgment ruling, the defendant-manufacturers asked the Court to reconsider its decision denying the motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s failure to warn claim. The defendants asserted that “this court committed clear error in holding that [defendant], as a matter of law, had a duty to warn of the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and in extending the duty to non-injured, non-users of the products, i.e. the Vikings’ trainers and coaches.” The court found no clear error in its July 2009 decision and denied the defendants’ motion for partial reconsideration.

The Court’s underlying July 2009 decision was brought to our attention as a result of this recent denial of the defendants’ motion for partial reconsideration. While this decision is more than a year old, it provides an interesting set of facts. In 2001, Minnesota Vikings player Korey Stringer died from complications of a heat stroke while practicing at training camp. Stringer was over 300 pounds, and he suffered heat stroke on a hot and humid day while wearing full pads and helmet. Stringer’s widow filed a lawsuit against the equipment manufacturers for failure to warn, design defect, breach of implied warranty and breach of express warranty.

The Court had granted the defendants’ summary judgment on all of the Plaintiffs’ claims except for her failure to warn claim. First, the court found that since the plaintiff could not show an alternative design for the equipment, it was not unreasonably dangerous and the plaintiff’s defective design claim failed. Second, the court found that “strict products liability has effectively preempted implied warranty claims where personal injury is involved.” Third, the court found no evidence that the defendants expressly warranted that the helmet and pads were safe for their intended use.

On plaintiff’s failure to warn claim, the court denied summary judgment because it found that “[d]efendants had a duty to warn of the specific risk of developing heat stroke because it was not an obvious risk, and because the connection between Stringer’s heat stroke and Defendants’ failure to warn was not remote enough to preclude liability as a matter of law.” Further, the court found issues of material fact about whether a warning would have changed the conduct of Viking trainers and prevented Stringer’s injuries.

The aspect of the court’s decision most intriguing to us is the court’s finding that the danger presented by the helmet and shoulder pads was not obvious. Stringer was a 300+ pound football player that was not new to the game and had likely practiced in full gear in the heat for many years prior. How could the danger not be obvious? In determining that the danger was not obvious, the court distinguished the general risk of becoming hotter when wearing a helmet and shoulder pads and the specific risk of developing heat stroke. The court stated that the first was obvious but the specific risk was not. We are still not convinced there is much a difference.

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