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Search for answers

Stringer family to file $100M-plus wrongful death lawsuit

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Posted: Wednesday November 07, 2001 8:27 AM
  Kelci Stringer Kelci Stringer claims the Vikings were ill-equipped to deal with the severe heat illness that killed her husband. Jamie Sabau

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

CINCINNATI -- Three painful months have passed, but Kelci Stringer is still searching for answers. Why did her husband, Minnesota Vikings All-Pro tackle Korey Stringer, become the first player in NFL history to die of complications from heatstroke? How did the events that led to his shocking death at 27 unfold? And who, if anyone, should be held accountable?

Kelci Stringer, a 27-year-old widow with a 3-year-old son, is hoping that she will find the answers in a court of law.

Along with Korey's agent James Gould and attorney Stanley M. Chesley, Kelci outlined to CNNSI.com the $100 million-plus wrongful death lawsuit that she intends to bring against the Vikings organization in the wake of her husband's death in the early morning hours of Aug. 1 in Mankato, Minn. Joining the suit as plaintiffs will be Korey's parents, James and Cathy Stringer of Warren, Ohio. And while Chesley has not finalized the list of defendants to be named in the suit, it will include head coach Dennis Green and assistant head coach/offensive line coach Mike Tice.

Chesley says he also intends to name Dr. David Knowles, a physician who works with the Vikings during their summer practices; head athletic trainer Chuck Barta; the Vikings' coordinator of medical services Fred Zamberletti; and the Mankato Clinic, where Knowles practices.

Chesley says that Vikings owner Red McCombs and the Mayo Clinic-affiliated Immanuel-St. Joseph's hospital in Mankato could also be added to the lawsuit.

Kelci Stringer's legal team is scheduled to announce the lawsuit at a news conference Thursday in the Twin Cities, one week after the results of a three-month investigation by the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Division cleared the Vikings of any direct responsibility for Korey Stringer's death.

Chesley says that while his legal team will announce the suit Thursday, actual court documents will not be filed until the day after Minnesota plays its final game this season. While there has been no hint of potential settlement talks to this point, the roughly two-month window would allow both sides to contemplate such a move. And publicity surrounding the case could hasten settlement discussions.

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CNNSI.com NFL writer Don Banks thinks Kelci Stringer is determined to see the the suit through. Start
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  • SI's Lester Munson
    The most hopeful thing you can say about Kelci Stringer's planned wrongful death lawsuit against Minnesota Vikings coaches and players is that she starts out third-and-long.

    The widow and her attorneys face a real battle as they try to pin responsibility for the death of Korey Stringer on his fellow employees, head coach Dennis Green, trainer Chuck Barta and their assistants. The law of Minnesota, like most of the 50 states, limits claims for a death at work to workers' compensation.

    To move beyond the benefits available under workers' compensation, Kelci Stringer must somehow show that the coaches and the trainers were guilty of "gross" or "willful" conduct. A simple error of judgment is not enough. Negligence is not enough. The challenge will be to convince a jury in the Twin Cities that the coaches and the trainers had a reckless or conscious disregard for Korey Stringer's health and welfare.

    The Vikings' insurance company and its attorneys will ask, quite reasonably, why coaches and trainers would deliberately injure a star player in whom they had invested millions of dollars. It will be an inquiry that will be difficult to answer. For Kelci Stringer to prevail, she will need proof, probably from other players, that the trainers ignored Korey Stringer's distress and ignored it more than once.

    Her lawsuit against the team physicians will be less difficult. Her lead attorney, Stanley Chesley, and his firm are veterans of many liability cases against hospitals and physicians. They will be able to produce experts who will criticize everything that happened, from the team physical to the moment of death. It's the kind of things the great trial lawyers, like Chesley, are able to do. And the timeline of events leading to Korey Stringer's death offers them a promising place to start.

    Here are some other things about the Stringer lawsuit that may prove to be interesting:

  • Contract Money: A claim for damages against the Vikings gives Kelci Stringer significant tax leverage on the money promised to Korey Stringer in his restructured contract. If the Vikings were to pay Kelci under Korey's contract, it would be taxable income. If they pay Kelci as part of a damages settlement, it is not taxable income, a huge savings for the Stringer family.

    Dick Butkus, a Hall of Fame linebacker of the Chicago Bears, settled medical malpractice claim against the Bears' team physician at the end of his career. The settlement also resolved a contract dispute, and all of it was treated as non-taxable money for Butkus. It is a model for Kelci Stringer to follow.

  • File Suit Immediately: It is difficult to comprehend why Kelci Stringer would wait until the end of the season to file her lawsuit. Any distraction caused by the lawsuit would be barely noticeable in the distraction already plaguing the Vikings since Korey Stringer's death.

    What is she waiting for? It will be at least a year after the date of filing before she approaches the time of trial. Isn't it better to file now and start the clock running toward a trial date?

  • Settlement Leverage: Perhaps Kelci Stringer and her attorneys are hoping to establish settlement leverage by talking about the suit months before they actually file. It is not a bad idea. Their goal should be to put together a global settlement with the Vikings and the insurance companies involved. The necessary people include insurers of the physician, the hospital, the coaches, the trainers and the workers compensation carrier.

    The best way to get them all together is to file suit and ask the judge to call a settlement conference. If there is any good will left between Kelci Stringer and the Vikings, they could get together on a voluntary basis to explore the settlement prospects.

  • Forget About An Apology: Kelci Stringer is concerned about the behavior of Vikings' officials. They have tried to cover things up, she suspects. She is still waiting for an apology. She undoubtedly feels there is some matter of principle in here somewhere.

    The last place to resolve a matter of principle is in a civil damages lawsuit. If it's principle she's concerned, she should get together with team owner Red McCombs and Green and try to work out a settlement.

    Sports Illustrated legal analyst Lester Munson regularly holds court on sports law and business matters on CNNSI.com.

    The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.
     
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    Kelci Stringer's suit will challenge the OSHA conclusion, and will allege that the Vikings were grossly unprepared to deal with a severe heat illness on a day in which there was a declared heat emergency in southern Minnesota. While the suit was still in draft form this past weekend, CNNSI.com was told by Chesley that it will include allegations that Knowles was not present at the team's practice field when Stringer showed the first signs of heat-related distress.

    The suit will further contend that Tice, Stringer's position coach, as well as Green and the team's trainers, ignored Stringer's history of early-camp heat-related problems amid the sweltering conditions in the upper Midwest on July 31, when the heat index soared to a reported 110 degrees.

    On July 30, Stringer had failed to finish the morning workout and sat out that afternoon's practice after vomiting and showing other heat-related symptoms. The suit will allege, based solely on media reports, that two other Vikings players, Winfield Garnett and Antwone Young, received intravenous fluids on July 31. But Stringer did not; in fact, says Kelci, team officials did not even check the 339-pound lineman's vital signs despite his obvious struggle with the heat the previous day.

    "In the words of [Vikings wide receiver] Cris Carter [on Aug. 5], '79 out of 80 of us players made it through practice on Tuesday,' " Kelci Stringer says. "That's like saying 79 out of 80 jets landed safely."

    While the suit is wide-ranging and will name many individuals and several institutions as defendants, it will focus most intently on the hour after Stringer fell ill on the practice field. The suit will allege that the Vikings' medical personnel did not react quickly enough as the All-Pro tackle more than once struggled to get back on his feet, and writhed on the ground in full view of his teammates before he finally staggered into the team's 62-degree first-aid trailer.

    "You had a guy who was sick the day before, but no trainers around him at the most crucial time, in the early stages of heatstroke, on the hottest day of the year," says Paul DeMarco, an attorney working with Chesley on the case. "It's gross negligence. The damage was done in the trailer, after 11:30 and before 12:06 [paramedics reached Stringer at 12:07 p.m.]. They basically lost an hour until he was hospitalized [at 12:24 p.m.]. The rest of the night they were playing catch-up, with doctors that proved to be overmatched. To characterize it as a comedy of errors wouldn't be too far off."

    According to DeMarco, one unnamed Vikings player has told him that he went into the first-aid trailer between 11:30 and 11:45 a.m. and saw Stringer lying on his stomach shaking and moaning, with his eyes rolled back in his head. DeMarco says that the player told him, "Everyone was just standing around, and everything was moving slowly."

    In the trailer, the suit will claim, Stringer collapsed with only athletic trainer interns initially on hand to assist him with cool towels and fans. Fred Zamberletti was summoned, but Stringer was not attended to by a paramedic until 12:07 pm, and was not under the care of a doctor -- Dr. Knowles -- until reaching the hospital in Mankato 17 minutes later. Upon being admitted, Stringer's body temperature was 108.8 degrees. He died 13 1/2 hours later after his internal organs began shutting down.

    Kelci's legal team contends that the 300-page OSHA report is not only wrong, but that it is also deficient in its analysis of the events leading up to Korey's death shortly after midnight Aug. 1. The lawyers say that the OSHA analysis focuses only on the workplace environment facing the Vikings up until 11 a.m on July 31, the formal end of the team's morning practice session. That was less than 30 minutes before Stringer began showing early indications of heatstroke.

    Furthermore, say Kelci's lawyers, the OSHA report contained no analysis or opinion regarding the medical attention that Stringer received from the Vikings' trainers or doctors in the hour before he was hospitalized at 12:24 p.m.

    Says agent Jimmy Gould, "The OSHA report stops at 11 a.m. It doesn't even get into what happened in the trailer. They cut it off at 11, and at 11:10 all hell broke loose. That's why the OSHA report isn't the end of this story."

    Minnesota OSHA spokesman James Honerman agrees that his department's investigation focused on whether or not the Vikings met workplace safety standards in general. The OSHA probe was not, says Honerman, a specific review of the Vikings' on-site medical team's reaction to Stringer's illness.

    "What led up to the accident rather than the accident itself was what we focused on," Honerman said. "It would be fair to say we focused on the prevention aspect and the type of training the entire team received. They had the proper medical care on hand. We did report that they had a first-aid trailer there. But our focus was not on that aspect of the situation, but the factors that led to the situation."

    In a lengthy conversation with CNNSI.com, Kelci Stringer's focus was clear: She wants the individuals who supervised her husband -- both on the football field and medically -- to answer for their actions and decisions. She is filing her lawsuit even though she acknowledges that coaches Green and Tice were Korey Stringer's two strongest allies in the Vikings organization and it is painful for her to accuse them of negligence.

    "I need to know what happened to my husband," says Stringer. "And nobody has told me yet what happened to my husband. That's why I'm filing this lawsuit, because I have to know. I have to."

    In the days after Korey's death, Green repeatedly characterized the tragedy as "unexplainable." The word makes Kelci seethe. "There's no way in the world that dying of heatstroke is unexplainable," she says. "I don't accept that. There's no way a seven-year veteran should have died of heat stroke in a National Football League training camp in 2001. Period, the end.

    "I don't wish to be the bewildered widow who says, 'Oh, football is too hard and they should change it all,' " Stringer continues. "I understand 'mind over matter' and the 'play with pain' thing. I'm not anti-NFL. I'm not anti-football. I'm not anti-Vikings.

    "But I would like to see some common sense, better equipment, more Gatorade, shortened practices. And they still haven't answered the question of how it could have happened. I need that. Korey accepted the responsibility to be their puppet. He understood. I'm no puppet. I didn't choose football. I don't play football. I will not be their puppet."

    Says Chesley, whose courtroom adversaries have included tobacco companies, the makers of the diet drug Phen-Phen and Union Carbide, following the Dec. 3, 1984, gas leak in Bhopal, India, "Is anybody criminally liable? No. But I don't have to prove that. All I have to prove is that there was a willful, wanton, gross misconduct by a number of people, all coming together in his death. They put his life at risk and now I want to put their property at risk. Bottom line: Before this one is over, Kelci Stringer may own a lot of houses in Minnesota."

    Chesley scoffs at the OSHA report that cleared the Vikings of culpability in Stringer's death. "The OSHA report is Alice in Wonderland," he says. "I've seen whitewash in my day. But how does a man who passed a physical on Sunday, and who is a professional athlete, die of heat prostration on the second day of training camp? The story of how that can happen is the smoking gun. And we're going to peel away that onion."

    The Vikings were to have paid Korey Stringer a guaranteed $2.85 million this season, with nearly $8 million in non-guaranteed money due in the remaining two years of his contract. Gould says that team owner McCombs has made it clear that the team will not pay to the Stringer family the balance of the contract. Gould also says that McCombs rebuffed his initial attempts at a settlement, a deal that one Vikings front-office member was known to be in favor of.

    Kelci Stringer denies that McCombs' intransigence is in fact the driving force behind her lawsuit. "This is not because I want to be rich," she says. "It's not because I hate the Vikings or hate Minnesota. All I want to know is what happened. I wouldn't have cared if McCombs honored Korey's contract. He could have given me the entire contract, plus the future earnings and I still would have filed a wrongful death."

    Reached at his home in San Antonio, Texas, McCombs declined to comment on the lawsuit. Vikings executive vice president Mike Kelly said, "It's an issue between Red and Korey's family. The whole thing's unfortunate. We loved Korey, and he died. The OSHA report cleared us of liability, but we're not happy about it. We didn't win. There's no win in this whole thing."

    Dr. Knowles did comment. "I think they're just taking the typical shotgun approach, naming anyone who had anything to do with his death," he told CNNSI.com. "I feel he received excellent treatment. Looking back I can't think of anything we would have done differently that would have produced a different outcome. I feel very confident that we did everything here that was possible. I'm not really worried about this, other than the time it will take away from my practice."

    Knowles told CNNSI.com that he was not at practice July 31, and never attends practice. He said he went to the Vikings' training camp between 8 and 8:30 that morning to make his rounds, as he usually does. Knowles said that he is on call nearby at the Mankato Clinic, but has his own practice to deal with, so he doesn't attend workouts.

    None of the other defendants in the suit would comment to CNNSI.com either about the overall events of July 31-Aug. 1, or their specific role in the aftermath of Stringer's heat-related collapse.

    While Kelci insists she is not "anti-Vikings," both she and Gould admit to being angry at the team for implying soon after the death that Stringer's collapse may have been the result of other factors in addition to the heat. "The Vikings insinuated that he might have been taking supplements or just driving himself berserk to make weight," Kelci says. "He didn't do any of that. At first they thought I was stupid. But now I think they think Korey was dumb, and I take that personally."

    Gould says that when the autopsy report showed only death by heatstroke, and the toxicology reports concluded that Stringer had consumed no illegal supplements, the Vikings were out of answers -- other than that Stringer had worked himself to death beneath their very noses.

    In an interview with CNNSI.com on Aug. 2, line coach Tice said that he had challenged Stringer during the offseason to increase his mental toughness and assume a larger leadership role on the offensive line. In that interview Tice confirmed reports that Stringer had been extremely motivated on the morning of July 31 by a newspaper photograph that showed him bent over and struggling from the effects of the previous day's heat.

    "I think they intentionally were trying to drive his tolerance for pain to a new level," Gould says. "I think they were trying to take him to a new threshold, so he could perform at a higher level. But I think they pushed it past the line -- way past the line."

    Kelci maintains that after initially appearing to embrace her, the Vikings hierarchy has lately ostracized her. That is not true, she says, of some players who were on the field with Stringer the day he died.

    "They're letting me know that there's some stuff that went on," she says. "These things eat at me and make me question what the hell did go on. ... Those guys see what's going on. Good things don't happen when you do bad things."

    Left unsaid by both sides of this dispute is how the impending lawsuit might affect ceremonies planned for the Nov. 19 Monday night game between the Vikings and the New York Giants. On that evening, Minnesota is scheduled to honor Korey Stringer by retiring his No. 77 jersey at halftime. Kelci and the couple's 3-year-old son, Kodie, are scheduled to attend.


     
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