Tarnished Twenty- The FindLaw Sports Law Blog

Court Ices Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against NHL

Derek Boogaard spent six seasons as an enforcer in the National Hockey League, earning nicknames like "Boogeyman" and "The Mountie," and being voted the second most intimidating player in the league. Those fights took their toll. After Boogaard died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose in 2011, tests of his brain showed advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy although he was only 28 years old.

Boogaard's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NHL, claiming that the league was negligent in exposing their son to frequent head trauma and failing to offer him adequate care. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge last summer, and an appeals court affirmed the dismissal, presumably ending the litigation.

Illegal Hits?

The NHL drafted Boogaard because of his massive size and penchant for fighting, the lawsuit claimed, and because the brawls helped boost ratings, the league did little to prevent them. And frequent fighting left Boogaard with a host of physical ailments. "To deal with the pain, he turned to the team doctors, who dispensed pain pills like candy," said the Boogaards' attorney, William Gibbs. "Then, once he became addicted to these narcotics, the NHL promised his family that it would take care of him. It failed. He died."

The lawsuit claims Minnesota Wild team doctors prescribed Boogaard over 1,200 painkillers during the 2008-09 season alone. And doctors for the New York Rangers reportedly provided the player with prescriptions for an additional 366 pills during the 2010-11 season. Boogaard's death was ruled an accidental overdose after mixing painkillers with alcohol.

Legal Punches

While U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman was clear last year that the dismissal of the suit should not be misunderstood as support for "how the NHL handled Boogaard's particular circumstances -- or the circumstances of other NHL players who over the years have suffered injuries from on-ice play," Boogaard's parents nevertheless failed to register themselves as trustees for his estate, as they were legally required to do so in order to sue. Feinerman also ruled the filings failed to provide proof that the NHL was negligent, either by promoting in-game violence or burying the growing body of concussion-related injuries.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concurred. "[W]e agree with the district court that by failing to respond to the National Hockey League's argument that their complaint fails to state a claim, the Boogaards forfeited any argument that it does," the court held. "Their suit thus fails regardless of whether they can run the procedural gantlet [sic]."

It's unclear whether Boogaard's family can, or will, re-file against the NHL. For now, though, the league has dodged legal liability in his death.

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