GREAT FALLS — A Montana hospital is not liable for the brain injury a 16-year-old Belt High School student suffered in a 2014 football game, a jury ruled Wednesday.
Robert Back suffered a concussion on Sept. 5, 2014, and collapsed on the sidelines during a game he played seven days later, despite a physician’s instructions that he not play until at least Sept. 15. His brain injury has left him nearly paralyzed, unable to speak and in need of 24-hour care that has cost nearly $2 million so far.
Back’s parents sued Benefis Health System, an athletic trainer, the Belt School District and the football coach, arguing a series of mistakes led to the teen being “cleared” to play.
A Cascade County judge dropped the trainer and coach from the civil lawsuit and the school district’s insurance company settled for $750,000.
Benefis filed a counterclaim against Back’s father, Robert “Buck” Back and his stepmother Shannon Back, arguing they were negligent in the boy’s injuries.
Assistant Belt football coach Alan Lake testified during the 13-day civil trial that after the teen’s devastating injury, Shannon Back yelled to Buck Back: “I told you not to let him (expletive) play.”
The family’s lawsuit argued a trainer employed by Benefis had “cleared” Robert to play, but football coach Jeff Graham testified the family did not pass on information that doctors suspected he’d suffered a concussion and needed to be cleared by a doctor before returning to play.
“While Benefis Health System is pleased with the jury’s finding that we are not responsible or liable for Robert Back’s injuries, we continue to be deeply saddened by the tragic injuries Robert suffered,” hospital spokeswoman Keri Garman said in a statement.
Steve Shapiro, attorney for the Back family, told KFBB that they respect the jury’s decision and don’t plan to appeal.
Benefis presented evidence that an emergency room doctor who saw Robert Back on Sept. 6, 2014, wrote in discharge papers that he had likely suffered a concussion and shouldn’t play football until he was cleared by a physician.
Dr. Thomas Triehy with Great Falls Clinic testified that during an appointment four days later, Buck Back argued his son did not suffer a hit that would cause a concussion, suggested that he may have been dehydrated and left the exam room early in frustration. He said the father “wanted a note so Robert could play Friday.”
Triehy testified he wrote a note saying Robert Back could return to play on Sept. 15 if he was symptom-free and had cleared a 5-step return-to-play program outlined in a handout he gave the family. Buck Back testified he didn’t read the note, but assumed his son would give it to his coaches.
Graham, the coach, testified he never got the note and thought Back had the flu.
The family said they believed Back had been cleared to play on Sept. 12 after Graham administered a concussion test and trainer Jessica Hansen looked at the results and emailed Graham that Back looked “OK concussion wise.” Hansen testified she also did not know Back had been diagnosed with a concussion.
The family said they thought the test was part of the school’s return-to-play program.
In closing arguments, Shapiro said: “There isn’t one person who is responsible for what happened here. There are many who are responsible for what happened here,” adding that Back was the “victim of the decisions made by adults surrounding him.”
Shannon Back testified last week that she had a bad feeling when she learned Robert would be playing, but didn’t act on it, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
“There were so many steps missed with the school and the trainers that could have so easily prevented this, and us, too,” she said. “All I can say is when a mom has an intuition just don’t ignore it.”
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