Judge orders revisions in lawsuit over Mo. football player's death

Friday, March 30, 2007

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of a University of Missouri football player is too vague and must be revised to include specific allegations against 14 defendants, a judge ruled.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the July 2005 death of Aaron O'Neal, 19, a freshman linebacker who collapsed during a voluntary preseason workout at Faurot Field and died a short time later.

Filed in Boone County Circuit Court, the lawsuit alleges that university officials' response to O'Neal's collapse violated more than 100 rules and regulations of such groups as the National Association of Athletic Trainers, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Big XII Conference.

"However, in its extensive pleading, nowhere have the plaintiffs defined which requirements, guidelines or procedures apply to any of the defendants, individually," Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler wrote in his order Wednesday.

Head football coach Gary Pinkel, athletic director Mike Alden and 12 other employees of the Athletic Department at the Columbia campus are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Oxenhandler told the plaintiffs to rewrite the complaint within 30 days, clarifying which specific rules were broken by each person.

Defense attorney Hamp Ford had sought the revisions, pointing out in a motion that the defendants have a variety of duties and professional memberships.

"Certainly we'll have a better idea of what they claim against each of the defendants," Ford said of the judge's order. "To that extent, it's helpful to defending the case."

Oxenhandler also ordered certain phrases to be stricken from the lawsuit, such as a statement that O'Neal resembled a "flower wilting" when he collapsed and that he "knew that he was going to die and knew that defendants were not going to do anything to help him."

Bob Blitz, one of the attorneys representing parents Lonnie and Deborah O'Neal, called the order a "non-event."

"From a lawyer's perspective, the striking of those few words do not change the lawsuit at all," Blitz said.

The lawsuit was initially filed in August 2005, the same month that the Boone County medical examiner identified viral meningitis as the official cause of death.

But an amended version, filed in July 2006, targets athletic department employees' unfamiliarity with the symptoms and exercise-induced complications of a genetic blood disorder called sickle cell trait.

The changes followed suggestions from the chairman of the university's pathology department and several outside experts that sickle cell trait -- found in an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the U.S. black population -- was a contributing factor in O'Neal's death.

Individuals with sickle cell trait have one normal gene for hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells, and one abnormal gene. Unlike normal, rounded red blood cells, the sickle-shaped cells carry less oxygen and can clog blood vessels that flow to the heart and other muscles.

The trait is distinct from sickle cell anemia, a condition that affects fewer people and in which two abnormal genes are present.

Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com

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