UPDATE: UM System settles O'Neal lawsuit

Thursday, March 12, 2009 | 4:16 p.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 12, 2009

COLUMBIA — The University of Missouri System and its insurer will pay $2 million to the parents of Aaron O'Neal and establish a $250,000 scholarship endowment fund in his memory as part of the settlement of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents against employees of MU's athletics department.

As part of the settlement, neither the UM System or the 14 employees of the athletic department named in the lawsuit will be held liable for O'Neal's death.

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 Hospital 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 athletics 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 Pinkel, 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.

March 12:The University of Missouri System will pay $2 million to the parents of Aaron O'Neal and establish a $250,000 scholarship endowment fund in his memory as part of the settlement of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents against employees of MU's athletic department.

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Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler approved the terms of the settlement during a hearing Thursday afternoon.

"It's good to have the legal process completed," football coach Gary Pinkel, who was named as a defendant in the suit, said in a news release from the MU News Bureau. "From the moment we lost Aaron, our primary concern was always for his family and for us to do what's right for them."

As part of the settlement Aaron O'Neal's father, Lonnie O'Neal, will receive 65 percent of the settlement, or about $1.3 million. Deborah O'Neal, Aaron O'Neal's mother, will receive 35 percent, or about $700,000. In addition, the UM System will pay the $10,333.95 in the plaintiff's taxable court costs.

The UM System's insurer, United Educators Insurance Co., "recommended and participated in the settlement," according to the release.

MU will award a scholarship from the Aaron O'Neal endowment to a student athlete each year. The $250,000 will come from unrestricted funds from the MU athletics department's budget, UM System Chief of Staff David Russell said after the hearing Thursday.

Russell said that the UM system offered the scholarship endowment to honor O'Neal and that "both parties wanted to resolve (the lawsuit) amicably."

"I've always understood through this whole process that they were doing what they had to do, and all we could focus on was honoring Aaron and what he meant to our program," Pinkel said in the statement. "We've done a lot of things over the last 3 1/2 years to keep his memory alive, and I think the scholarship is a wonderful idea to continue that."

Athletic Director Mike Alden, another defendant in the lawsuit, said in a statement: "You're certainly relieved that the legal process is over, but you still have this void that was created by Aaron's death that can never be filled. My hope is that the closing of the legal chapter is beneficial for everyone, and that the O'Neal family knows that our thoughts will continue to be with them."

Alden was unavailable for further comment because he is at the Big 12 basketball tournament in Oklahoma City, MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

A tentative settlement agreement in the lawsuit was reached Feb. 20 after an independent mediation on Feb. 19. On Tuesday, UM System General Counsel Steve Owens said the parties had been discussing ways to resolve the case since its filing.

The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 23, 2005, by Lonnie O’Neal. Deborah O'Neal was later added to the lawsuit.

The suit alleged that trainers, coaches and staff didn't properly care for O'Neal after he collapsed during a voluntary workout on July 12, 2005. He died later that day at University Hospital.

As of Feb. 25, the UM System had paid almost $375,000 in legal defense costs as of Feb. 25, according to documents obtained by the Missourian under the Sunshine Law.

Lonnie O'Neal appeared at the hearing with his attorney Chris Bauman. During the hearing, Lonnie O'Neal testified that he agreed to the terms of the settlement and understood that he could take no further action against the 14 defendants concerning his son's death. Deborah O'Neal was not present at the hearing.

Lonnie O'Neal declined to comment further after the hearing. Grant S. Rahmeyer, an attorney for Deborah O'Neal who represented her at the hearing, also declined to comment.

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