SECOND UPDATE: UM System settles O'Neal lawsuit

Thursday, March 12, 2009 | 6:58 p.m. CDT; updated 12:04 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 13, 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 his parents against employees of MU's athletics department.

As part of the settlement, neither the UM System nor the 14 employees of the athletic department named in the lawsuit will be held liable for O'Neal's death.

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," MU football coach Gary Pinkel, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said in a statement 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."

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 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.

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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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 and its insurer, United Educators Insurance Co., will pay the $10,333.95 in the plaintiff's taxable court costs.

Of the $2 million settlement, the UM System will pay $600,000 and United Educators will pay the remainder, according to the news bureau statement. The insurance company "recommended and participated in the settlement," according to the statement. The UM System's share will come from its self-insurance fund, to which all campuses and operating departments contribute, UM System spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead said.

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 in the MU athletics department's budget, UM System Chief of Staff David Russell said after the hearing Thursday.

According to the settlement, Lonnie O'Neal will be the sole family member with input on the requirements and criteria of the scholarship, subject to UM System regulations.

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."

Pinkel said later that the scholarship would be given to a football player and that he and others in the athletics department were discussing plans to further honor O'Neal, but nothing had been decided yet.

"Since the tragedy happened for me my whole concern has always been for his family, teammates and his friends," Pinkel said after spring practice Thursday evening. "For the family and those involved, if there's closure I think that's good."

In September 2008, MU football seniors decided to honor O'Neal by having a different senior each game wear the No. 25, O'Neal's number at the time of his death. His number also appeared on the sideline at Memorial Stadium.

"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," MU athletics director Mike Alden, another defendant in the lawsuit, said in a statement. "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.

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

Lonnie O'Neal filed the lawsuit on Aug. 23, 2005. 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. According to an autopsy report released Aug. 23, 2005, by then-Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao, trainers first took O'Neal to the Tom Taylor athletic facility.

There they decided not to use a defibrillator on him because he had a heartbeat, and trainer Greg Nagel called 911. About 10 minutes later, an ambulance crew took O'Neal across the street to University Hospital, where he died that afternoon.

Rao said in her autopsy report that O'Neal died from a lymphocytic meningitis infection. In a letter to Rao regarding her report, University Hospital neurologist Douglas Anthony said he had found sickled red cells in O’Neal’s brain, which suggested he had sickle-cell trait.

The lawsuit was later amended to allege that O'Neal died from complications of sickle-cell trait and physical exertion.

As of Feb. 25, the UM System had paid almost $375,000 in legal defense costs, 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.

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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Jack Hall March 12, 2009 | 10:34 p.m.

WTF? Just because you have a faulty body does not mean your family should benefit from your death. How in the world is the university responsible for O'neal's death? Don't tell me the family is after justice; $2 million dollar justice.

(Report Comment)
Anton Berkovich March 12, 2009 | 10:43 p.m.

Clearly, Jack Hall is a more qualified lawyer and knows more about the case than the ones involved in the trial.

(Report Comment)
marvin saunders March 13, 2009 | 1:42 a.m.

I totally agree with Mr.Hall.Aaron death was bound to happen no matter where he was.You cant put the blame on anybody or any place.I can only hope the next time i have a heart failure it is on campus watching a missouri football game.My family will really like all that money!!

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr March 13, 2009 | 4:14 a.m.

Why doesn't the M.U. Health Department run stress testing on every single athlete under their programs in the future to make sure they are not putting future athletes at risk in this type of case?

That is the best long term solution for all of this to ensure they do not have "at risk" student athletes out there who might potentially die and they have to go through this all over again.

Oh but then again we have the old school mentality that thrives here in our community of "Oh but we have always done it this way".

Learn to maximize your resources people!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 13, 2009 | 4:35 a.m.

As an athlete conditions himself, his stress tests will improve. However, the sickle cell trait will not go away, and that leaves the athlete at risk of the type of sudden death we see here.

I agree with Marvin - the university is being faulted because it has deep pockets, not because of anything they didn't do. O'Neal won the Lawsuit Lottery.


(Report Comment)

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