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Jury: $10M to parents

Orlando Sentinel
Iliana Limón

A jury ruled the UCF Athletics Association was negligent in the 2008 death of football player Ereck Plancher and awarded his parents $10 million.

The group spent about five hours deliberating Thursday night, the 14th day of the Plancher wrongful death trial.

Attorneys representing UCFAA and Plancher’s family completed closing arguments Thursday afternoon. The six jurors began deliberation at about 5:30 p.m. Once the group determined UCFAA 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 Enock and Gisele Plancher, Ereck Plancher’s parents. The total was $5 million apiece.

The jury then decided there was no “clear and convincing evidence” UCFAA was liable for gross negligence and determined it should not face punitive damages.

“If there’s one message that we have sent very loudly and clearly, the welfare of any student athlete is at the top of any football program,” Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid said. “And that’s how to have a winning program.”

The Planchers declined to speak immediately after the verdict, allowing Yerrid to make a statement on their behalf.

UCF spokesman Grant Heston said the football program continues to mourn Plancher’s death, but UCFAA will appeal the decision.

“We believe the appeals court will side with us,” he said. “We feel that from pretrial rulings to ruling during the trial that there’s an ample of appeal opportunity and we strongly believe that this will be a quick process because it’s very clear that this was the wrong decision.”

Heston stated the jury’s decision not to award punitive damages “shows what we have in place works” and the school continues to do everything possible to protect its athletes.

Before the jury began deliberation, both sides presented their closing arguments.

Yerrid told jurors during his closing argument the UCF Athletics Association failed to follow its own policies and do everything possible to save Plancher’s life.

“I talked with you about all the pieces of the puzzle and hopefully you have all the pieces of the puzzle to put this story together,” Yerrid said.

UCFAA attorney Kevin Taylor countered there is “no evidence based proof” sickle cell trait caused death.

Plancher collapsed and died following offseason conditioning drills at the UCF football complex on March 18, 2008. Orange County medical examiner Joshua Stephany and three experts hired by the Plancher family attorneys testified Plancher died from complications of sickle cell trait.

Stephany told the jury last week extreme stress caused Plancher’s red blood cells to sickle, or warp, and quickly damaged his major organs.

Dr. Martin H. Steinberg, a Boston University hematologist, testified the suggestion complications from sickle cell trait caused Ereck Plancher’s death was “nuts.” Steinberg, an expert hired by the UCF Athletics Association, told the jury Wednesday afternoon there are no rigorous medical studies proving sickle cell trait can cause sudden death in athletes.

Steinberg was one of three experts hired by UCFAA who testified Plancher died from an undiagnosed heart condition and could not have been saved regardless of when athletic trainers intervened.

Yerrid told the jury for two years UCFAA never protested that sickle cell trait was the cause of Plancher’s death, then decided he was killed by a heart condition three weeks before the trial.

He said Plancher’s parents suffered a tremendous loss.

“If you let sympathy come into your verdict, you will be grossly in error,” Yerrid said. “They’ve got enough sympathy. They want justice from you.”

Taylor said no one disputed the Plancher family suffered a great loss, but he urged the jury not to hold it against UCFAA.

“I also hope you will take into account — a simple fundamental fact of life,” he said. “Sometimes things happen in life and no one is at fault. Sometimes things happen in life — and even bad things — and no one is to blame.”

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