UPDATE: Tentative settlement reached in Aaron O'Neal suit

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | 3:50 p.m. CDT; updated 12:08 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 12, 2009
Missouri football player Aaron O'Neal, left, is helped off the field by a teammate after he collapsed during a voluntary workout at Faurot Field on July 12, 2005. He was later pronounced dead at University Hospital.

COLUMBIA — A tentative settlement agreement has been reached in the three-and-a-half-year-long wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of MU football player Aaron O’Neal against employees of MU's athletic department, according to documents filed in Boone County Circuit Court.

In a letter to the court’s civil division, attorney Michael C. Rader, who represents Aaron O'Neal's mother, Deborah O'Neal, said the case “recently settled.” The letter also states that a hearing to decide whether to approve the settlement terms would be scheduled soon. In Missouri, settlements must be approved by the court before they are considered binding.

Timeline of Aaron O'Neal lawsuit

July 12, 2005: Aaron O’Neal, 19, dies after collapsing at a voluntary football practice.

July 29, 2005: MU released a timeline of the day of O’Neal’s death.

Aug. 23, 2005: Then-Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao releases autopsy report citing lymphocytic meningitis infection as the cause of O’Neal’s death. A letter from University Hosptial neurologist Douglas Anthony found sickled red blood cell in O’Neal’s brain, a condition which is commonly found in people with sickle-cell trait.

Aug. 23, 2005: Aaron O’Neal’s father, Lonnie O’Neal, files a wrongful death lawsuit against 14 coaches, trainers and employees of the MU Athletic Department, including MU football coach Gary Pinkel and Athletic Director Mike Alden.

July 2006: The O’Neals’ attorneys amend the lawsuit, alleging that MU failed to identify O’Neal as a carrier of sickle-cell trait.

March 12, 2007:
Hamp Ford, a private Columbia attorney, asks that certain statements be removed from the lawsuit.

March 28, 2007:
Judge Gary Oxenhandler rules that certain statements be stricken from the lawsuit and that the O’Neals’ attorneys specify which guidelines were violated.

Feb. 11, 2008:
Judge Gary Oxenhandler hears a motion to quash a subpoena by attorneys for Lonnie and Deborah O’Neal.

Dec. 23, 2008: Notice filed to depose MU football coach Gary Pinkel, MU Athletic Director Mike Alden and Associate Director of Athletics for Administration Mark Alnutt who is the former director of football operations at MU.

Feb. 19: Parties in the lawsuit take part in an independent mediation.

Feb. 20: A letter filed with the court by Michael C. Rader, attorney for Aaron O’Neal’s mother, Deborah O’Neal, indicates that the matter has been settled pending approval by the court.

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“At this stage, we can’t talk about any settlement details, but from what I understand, we should be able to shortly,” Rader said. “My understanding is that once a settlement is approved by the court, all parties will send out a press release with the details.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 by Lonnie O’Neal, the father of Aaron O’Neal, the 19-year-old MU football player who collapsed during a training practice and died shortly after at University Hospital on July 12, 2005. Deborah O'Neal was later added to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that MU coaches and trainers failed to properly care for Aaron O'Neal after he collapsed during the workout.

UM System General Counsel Steve Owens said discussions had been ongoing between the university and the O'Neals since the lawsuit's filing and that the parties had taken part in an independent mediation in St. Louis on Feb. 19.

Owens said he could not discuss any dollar amount that was sought but could "confirm that there has been a tentative settlement agreement and that we are going to present that to the court for its consideration and approval," he said.

The University of Missouri System, which contracted the firm of Ford, Parshall and Baker to represent the 14 defendants in the lawsuit, had spent almost $375,000 in legal defense costs as of Feb. 25, according to documents obtained by the Missourian under the Sunshine Law.

W. Hamp Ford Jr., who represents the defendants including MU Athletic Director Mike Alden and MU football coach Gary Pinkel, said that he couldn't talk about any particular settlement agreement in the case at this time.

"I would anticipate that there will be some further filings about that matter soon," Ford said.

Calls to Lonnie O'Neal and his attorney, Robert D. Blitz, were not returned.

On July 12, 2005, O'Neal was participating in a voluntary football workout when he became distressed while running drills. Later, he collapsed inside the door of the locker room after being helped off the field by other players.

“When the coach observed Aaron lying on the turf, he asked all the players to move forward so that a staff trainer could render assistance. The individual approached and stated that there was nothing that could be done,” former Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao wrote in O'Neal's autopsy report released on Aug. 23, 2005.

According to the report, an unnamed staff member placed O'Neal in an MU landscaping truck and then transported him to the Tom Taylor athletic facility where trainers decided not to use a defibrillator on O'Neal because he had a heartbeat. 

Athletic trainer Greg Nagel called 911. O'Neal was loaded into an ambulance about 10 minutes later and taken to University Hospital. He was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later at 4:05 p.m.

The lawsuit alleges that the decision to take O'Neal to the training facility instead of University Hospital, which is across the street from Memorial Stadium, was a breach in the trainers' duties.

Rao wrote in her report that some players said they didn't think the training staff had taken O'Neal's collapse seriously and hadn't responded quickly enough.

In her report, Rao said that O'Neal's death was caused by lymphocytic meningitis.

But University Hospital neurologist Douglas Anthony, who examined Aaron O’Neal brain after his death, found characteristics of sickled red blood cells, which is commonly found in a person with sickle-cell trait.

In a letter to Rao summarizing the pathology report, Anthony wrote: “While 8 percent of African Americans have sickle-cell trait, it is worth noting that sickle-cell trait is associated with a 40-fold increased risk of sudden death.”

The lawsuit was amended to include the allegation that O'Neal died from "a vascular crisis caused by sickle-cell trait and extreme physical exertion" and that coaches and trainers did not take sufficient precautions necessary for someone with the trait.

According to a previous Missourian story, a special task force of the National Athletic Trainers Association found that at least 15 college football players, including Aaron O’Neal, had died as a result of a blood-vessel blockage caused by sickle-cell trait from 2000 to 2007. 

The report listed sickle collapse as the No. 3 most common cause of sports deaths among high school and college athletes behind heatstroke and cardiovascular conditions.

MU student athletes have the option of being tested for sickle-cell trait. Though  the test is not required, many athletes opt to undergo the test, according to a July 13, 2007 Missourian story.

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