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Steve Yerrid: Hillsborough OKs record $2 million settlement for injured prep football player

The Tampa Tribune

By Anastasia Dawson | Tribune Staff
Published: October 27, 2015   |   Updated: October 28, 2015 at 05:37 AM

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board signed off Tuesday on a $2 million settlement with the family of former Wharton High School football player Sean McNamee, who suffered a serious brain injury on the school football field.

The settlement is the largest in the school district’s history, according to the family’s lawyers, and creates the district’s first uniform protocol for protecting student athletes from traumatic head injuries.

“It means a lot to our family,” said Sean McNamee’s father Todd, who sat through the school board meeting Tuesday with his son, who now sports long curly hair and a wide smile. “We’re very grateful.”

In 2013, Sean McNamee was playing catch with his Wharton High football teammates before practice on Oct. 9, 2013, when he jumped into the air to catch a pass and hit his head on a paint machine used to line the field. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

McNamee, 16 at the time, was briefly evaluated by his trainer and coaches but allowed to drive himself more than five miles to his home after the accident. When his father saw his condition he took him immediately to Florida Hospital Tampa, where it was discovered his skull was fractured.

“Every day is a struggle, I don’t know if you’ve ever had a headache, but it’s significant,” Sean McNamee said outside the school board meeting. “I’m just building myself up day by day, getting ahead in school and trying to succeed and do my best.”

Under the agreement, the school board will provide an additional $1 million in insurance coverage for every high school athlete starting next school year. Students will also have the $300,000 in insurance the state allows school districts to pay out in cases of wrongful injuries or death, for a total $1.3 million in insurance coverage.

That’s about as much as the McNamee family spent on Sean’s medical bills, said the family’s lawyer, Steve Yerrid. When McNamee fell, the school district did not carry any such insurance.

The school board will also pay a lump sum of $300,000 to the family within 30 days – the maximum amount state agencies like school districts are required to pay out under Florida law. The board will support the family’s separate claims bill with the Florida Legislature to authorize the school district to pay the remaining $1.7 million.

The claims bill would have to be passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, but Yerrid said the school board’s support should help it get through.

“Sean is a great kid and we want to make sure his future is bright,” said Superintendent Jeff Eakins.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of the McNamee family asserted there was a breach of contract by the school board to obtain and have in place a $1 million general liability insurance policy as mandated in the bylaws of the Florida High School Athletics Association at the time of the injury. The family was intent on ensuring that, beginning with the 2016-2017 school year, the more-than 200,000 students participating in athletics in the school district will fall under protection of a new liability insurance plan as a result of the settlement.

“It was extremely important to Sean and his parents that other students be better protected from the kind of events that led to Sean’s devastating injuries and an inability to obtain appropriate reparations for those injuries,’’ Yerrid said.

The settlement also created “The McNamee Protocol,” a uniform policy for staff members to follow if they suspect a student has sustained a head injury.

After his fall, McNamee was left alone in the school training room for several minutes, and his absence went unnoticed for more than half an hour, his lawyer said.

The school district has always had procedures in place for helping student with injuries, but no formal policy to ensure those steps were carried out, said Hillsborough schools spokeswoman Tanya Arja. Certified trainers and volunteer doctors attend athletic practices and games whenever possible.

The specifics of the new protocol are still being developed, said Superintendent Jeff Eakins. The policy will dictate not only how student athletes, but all students, are cared for in the case of an injury.

“Sean has been through a lot and we want to make sure this doesn’t happen to any other kids in our care,” Eakins said. “We’re doing everything we can to ensure we have the proper protocols in place to make sure things like this are prevented in the future.”

Yerrid said he has been in contact with the FHSAA and hopes other school districts in Florida will adopt the McNamee Protocol. He also encourages all school districts to provide an additional $1 million in insurance coverage to more adequately protect student-athletes.

On Monday, the FHSAA discussed a proposal to amend one its bylaws pertaining to insurance coverage. The proposal was to add language that would state “each student athlete must be covered by athletic accident medical insurance, catastrophic accident insurance and catastrophic disability insurance,” prior to participating in any game, practice, tryout or physical activity with the school.

Sean McNamee is currently continuing his education in Tallahassee. According to his attorney, McNamee must cope with epileptic seizures and other medical problems that have resulted from his injury.

“Sean dreamed of playing football in college, and he also dreamed of joining the Marine Corps and serving his country,” Yerrid said. “These are things that he will never be able to do. But he is a truly courageous person and a fine young man blessed with a loving and supportive family.”

Tribune reporter Nick Williams contributed to this report.

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