In the 20-year history of lawsuits filed by players against doctors, no professional athlete has ever been awarded more than former hockey player Glen Seabrooke, who in July won a $5.5 million verdict against the Philadelphia Flyers' former team doctor, orthopedic surgeon John Gregg. Then again, few players have ever had so sad—or sordid—a story to tell.
In November 1988, Seabrooke, then a 21-year-old left wing with a Flyers' minor league affiliate, the Hershey Bears, hurt his left shoulder crashing into a goalpost. First he was given painkillers. Then, when the pain persisted, he underwent arthroscopic surgery, performed by Gregg, for a massive tear in his rotator cuff. Gregg subsequently ordered up an extraordinary—and extraordinarily painful—course of rehabilitation. Memos, later introduced into evidence, revealed that the physical therapists had promised Flyer management that they would be "beating on Seabrooke all summer" to get him back for the next season. In fact, during his rehab Seabrooke was pushed so far beyond the limits of human endurance that he passed out several times from the pain. "Extreme pain is a signal," says Neal Abbott, Seabrooke's agent. "They ignored it. It never went away. He did what they told him to, and they ruined his arm."
By the time Seabrooke finally got a second opinion, the damage had been done. His new doctor, Toronto orthopedist Charles Bull, diagnosed his condition as "reflex sympathetic dystrophy"—or dead arm syndrome. Today, Seabrooke's left arm and shoulder are useless and cause him constant pain, and there is no likelihood that the suffering will ever cease.
After he filed his lawsuit in April 1991, Seabrooke found himself the subject of surveillance, as insurance investigators hoped to find evidence that his arm was not as impaired as he said it was. The gumshoes claimed to have just such proof on video, which Gregg's lawyer planned to show to the jury. But it was Seabrooke's brother who had mistakenly been taped, so the video was never shown.
After the video gambit backfired, Gregg was reduced to throwing himself at the mercy of the jurors. "I would never dare hurt anyone," he said, weeping on the witness stand. Then, addressing Seabrooke and explaining that he had once removed a tumor from Seabrooke's pelvis, he said, "You are alive today because of me."
The jury, which arrived at a verdict in three hours, wasn't buying Gregg's line, and the judge doesn't seem to either. "The jury did not perceive [Seabrooke] as a big-money professional athlete," says Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Marvin Halbert, who presided at the trial. "There was none of the animosity we see against the big stars. This was a kid who was never given a chance to make it."