Three years after legendary San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau shot himself in the chest with a .357 Magnum revolver, his relatives continue to battle the National Football League over what they say was a decades-long deception about concussions and brain injuries.
His former wife, Gina, and his four children opted out of a settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit in January because they want more information to emerge about the debilitating effects of head injuries, according to their lawyer, Steven M. Strauss, a partner with the Cooley law firm in San Diego.
The Seaus are trying to get their case returned to a California state court for a trial, Strauss said last month.
Seau is to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8.
Before his death in May 2012 at age 43, he had become erratic and short-tempered, according to legal papers. He was depressed, drank heavily and gambled millions compulsively. But his family was as stunned by his suicide as everyone else and wanted answers, Gina Seau told The Associated Press.
Throughout his long career -- he played 20 seasons with the NFL, with the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots in addition to the Chargers -- Seau had had concussions, but he always kept playing, she said.
“That didn't stop him,” she said. “I don't know what football player hasn't. It's not ballet. It's part of the game.”
When doctors at the National Institutes of Health examined tissue samples from his brain, they discovered that he was suffering from the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, found in athletes with a history of brain trauma.
The challenge for the Seaus will be to show that his injuries were caused by football he played in the NFL and not before, whether in high school or at the University of Southern California, said Scott Rosner, a sports business professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Trying to draw that link will be risky, he said.
"It might be there but my sense is that there would be a pretty strong case to be presented to a jury that maybe it was another injury that caused this, maybe it was before he got to the NFL," Rosner said.
The January following his suicide, Seau’s family sued the NFL and the helmet maker Riddell in California Superior Court in San Diego. The lawsuit alleged that Seau had killed himself because of his injuries, and that the NFL had long been aware that head injuries from violent collisions on the field could have long-term, debilitating effects on players. It ignored the link, falsified research and tried to repress the findings of other studies, the lawsuit said.
The family — including Seau’s four children, Tyler, Sydney, Jake and Hunter — became part of the federal class-action lawsuit filed in June 2012 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The complaint also alleged that the NFL fraudulently concealed the link between football-related head impacts and long-term neurological injuries from its players -- a charge the NFL denied.
The NFL had argued that safety and health rules were covered by the league's collective bargaining agreement with its players. It also said that the lawsuits lacked any proof that it concealed the risk of head trauma.
Brought by more than 5,000 former players or their families, the lawsuit was settled in April. The settlement provides payments of up to $5 million to players with such neurological conditions as dementia and Alzheimer's and Parkinson diseases, plus money for medical research and monitoring. It covers about 21,000 former NFL players.
Since the settlement was approved, about 90 former players have appealed.
The Seau family is among about 200 who opted out of the settlement. The Seaus in a "60 Minutes Sports" segment objected that the NFL took no responsibility for policies that led to the brain injuries.
“Since this litigation started, there hasn’t been one document produced, there hasn’t been one deposition taken," Strauss said in a statement to ESPN last year. "It seems very clearly designed to nip this in the bud and not have the truth come out, and that’s not acceptable to the Seau family, and it’s not acceptable to Junior’s legacy.”
A lawyer who negotiated the settlement on behalf of the players, Chris Seeger, a partner at Seeger Weiss, has said in a statement that if Strauss thought the $4 million the Seaus were eligible for was insufficient he could forfeit the money and face the significant risks associated with continuing litigation.
Rosner said Seau was in a category different from many other players.
"His earning capacity was greater, his earning capacity after the game was different because of his Hall of Fame status so you could see monetarily why they would go down this road," he said.
Seau’s attorneys also will have to address an outstanding question of the care that the NFL owed to its players at a time when they were represented by a union, said Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at the Zicklin School of Business of Baruch College, City University of New York.
And the attorneys will have to show that Seau's injuries led to his death, he said.