The six-year long, billion-dollar NFL concussion class-action lawsuit is finally drawing near a close, but the infighting and confusion that has dogged the suit since its beginning continues as fierce as ever. And it’s seriously threatening the likelihood that players will collect anywhere near the settlement they won.
First filed in 2011, the suit was originally settled in 2013 for $765 million. But the federal judge overseeing the case was concerned that amount wouldn’t be enough to provide for the more than 20,000 ex-NFL players covered under the suit. After multiple rounds of negotiation, she finally approved a revised settlement in 2015 that removed the $765 million cap on damages, and the new deal is expected to cost the NFL somewhere over $1 billion.
Now, as money from the suit will soon be disbursed, Outside the Lines reports on a slew of problems. Dozens of wives of former NFL players are so concerned that lawyers’ fees will eat heavily into the money meant to help care for their injured husbands—or compensate them for their deaths—that they’ve written a letter to the judge outlining disputes between them and their legal representation. Meanwhile, the lawyers representing NFL players complain about competing attorneys aggressively poaching their clients, and the complex of “opportunist lawyers, doctors, predatory lenders and other professionals” that have popped up around the case.
As part of the settlement, there is a $112.5 million fund set aside to compensate the attorneys who worked on the case. But attorneys also have individual retainer agreements with the plaintiffs they represent, ranging from 15 to 40 percent of their eventual awards. Somewhere around half of the settlement could be eaten up solely by lawyers’ fees.
Lawyers deserve to be paid for this, and all, class-action lawsuits. They have put in tens of thousands of hours of work on the case, many of those hours before it was clear that there was any monetary award to be had at all. But what is an appropriate level of compensation?
Jason Luckasevic represents about 500 former players, and it was his lawsuit that kicked off this process in 2011. One of those players is Fred McNeill, who played for the Vikings, and died in 2015. His wife, Tia McNeill, signed the letter to the judge, and told OTL she doesn’t believe Luckasevic should get 25 percent of the award for her husband, on top of what he’ll get from the lawyers’ fund.
“I feel like we were represented and take care of, and now there is contention with this person repping you,” McNeill says. “This was his case. He filed this for his firm, so part of me feels bad for him — but it doesn’t feel  percent bad for him. I’m just being honest.”
For his part, Luckasevic says he’ll only get $700,000 out of the lawyers’ fund, while he’s put at least $1.7 million worth of costs into the case:
“I’ll waive the common benefit money so I can get 25 percent,” said Luckasevic, whose fury is mostly directed at [Christopher] Seeger and the leaders of the case. “What the hell, I have $1.7 million of my firm’s costs into this case, and I’m gonna get $700,000?”
Under the agreement, Seeger, who only has around 25 clients, will oversee the distribution of the $112.5 million lawyers’ fund. He says his firm has put over 21,000 hours, at the cost of over $18 million, into the case. With the 2.6 multiplier for fees and expenses he’s asked for, his firm stands to receive $51 million from the fund.
Seeger has also proposed a five percent surcharge—that would come from individual attorneys’ retainer fees, or the awards for players who are working without an attorney—to cover future work on the case over the 65-year lifespan of the settlement. Other lawyers, to put it lightly, disagree with that proposal, and have filed objections to it.
“Why would they need an extra 5 percent when they spent all that time negotiating for the $112 million?” said Catherina Watters, a lawyer who represents several players in disability claims and is working pro bono in the concussion case for Steve Smith, a former NFL running back suffering from ALS.
“You want my $700,000 [from the common fund], Chris, have it, choke on it,” says Luckasevic. “Just don’t take 5 percent of my hard work. You didn’t put this case together, you didn’t sign up guys that were truly injured. You didn’t rep them for 5 1/2 years. I did that work, don’t go reaching into my pants.”
Finally, there’s the poaching of clients. Seeger he’s never seen poaching like this; Luckasevic says it has showcased lawyers at their worst; an anonymous attorney said it was “dirty” and a “feeding frenzy” for clients.
To see for yourself, simply Google “NFL Concussion Lawsuit” or something similar, and see what pops up. Here’s what I got:
The NFL’s handling of concussions and other player safety issues has been abhorrent. But in this instance, for players who haven’t seen their money and don’t know how much they’ll ever see, it sure seems like there is plenty of blame to go around.