Players' dementia case has massive implications says legal expert

The sporting world will be “waiting with bated breath” for the outcome of a landmark rugby league court case, a lawyer has claimed.

By Peter Smith
Friday, 16th April 2021, 5:00 pm
John Atkinson was a Challenge Cup winner for Leeds in 1978. Picture by Steve Riding.
John Atkinson was a Challenge Cup winner for Leeds in 1978. Picture by Steve Riding.

Forty players, all aged under 55, are planning to sue the Rugby Football League after showing symptoms of dementia.

Ipek Tugcu, senior associate in the brain injury team at law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp, said the case “will likely set a powerful precedent for rugby players around the world”.

players around the world”.

Head injuries have become a mounting concern in the game, particularly since former Leeds Rhinos captain Stevie Ward announced his retirement, due to a long-term concussion, at the start of this year.

John Atkinson, the second-highest try scorer in Leeds’ history, suffered from Alzheimer's before his death in 2017.

Tugcu predicted: “If the players succeed, it will open the floodgates for hundreds of other athletes to pursue legal action.

“This will, inevitably, cause stark changes in the way the sport safeguards against injury. If the players fail, it may deter future generations from wanting to play professionally, out of fear for their health.”

Tugcu believes the case will be “difficult” and could come down to a judge’s final decision.

She said: “To win, the players must prove not only that the Rugby Football League failed to take reasonable steps to protect them from known risks of the sport, or risks that ought to have been known, but also that these failures resulted in, or contributed to, the development of a brain injury.

“It’s not enough to simply say that the sport should have done more, the link between their alleged failures and the injuries sustained must be proven using expert evidence.

“Proving this causative link will be particularly tricky, given that dementia can happen to anyone and there is then some increased, accepted, risk of injury from playing any sport.

“Untangling what would have likely happened in any event from an injury caused by actual negligence is both complex and fragile.

“Unless the Rugby Football League admit fault, this will all come down to a judge deciding which side’s evidence is preferred.”

Of what would be the ideal result, she added: “You want a fair outcome – one that compensates players injured due to unacceptable failings, provides current and future athletes with adequate protection from the known risks of their job and keeps the sport alive and thriving, reassuring new generations to continue to play.”

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