(Reuters) - A Wisconsin mother filed a $5-million lawsuit against the Pop Warner youth football organization on Thursday, blaming it for her son’s suicide after years of playing the “combat sport.”
The suit comes amid scrutiny and continuing litigation over the effects of repeated blows to the head in American football, and the potential for such injuries to contribute to depression and other mental health problems among players.
Debra Pyka filed the complaint against Pop Warner Little Scholars and its liability insurer in a federal Wisconsin court. Pyka said her son, Joseph Chernach, hanged himself at the age of 25, after developing brain diseases from playing in the league as a youth.
“Tackle football with helmets is a war game. It is not only a ‘contact’ sport, it is a ‘combat’ sport,” the complaint said. “Joseph Chernach’s suicide was the natural and probable consequence of the injuries he suffered playing Pop Warner football.”
Representatives for the Langhorne, Pennsylvania-based body did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The suit said Chernach played in the league for four years, starting as an 11-year-old, and suffered concussions that were not diagnosed at the time. The suit said he developed dementia pugilistica, also known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and post-concussion syndrome.
He performed well in school for years until he became a sophomore at Central Michigan University, the suit said, at which point the cumulative brain damage began to affect his thinking and mood.
“From that point on, his mood became progressively depressed and ultimately paranoid, distrusting his closest friends and family,” the complaint said.
He hanged himself in his mother’s shed in June 2012, according to the complaint. The family only learnt of his brain injuries when they got an autopsy report the following year.
Pyka is seeking at least $5 million for his wrongful death.
In 2012, the league tightened safety regulations to better protect players from concussions and other head injuries, according to media reports.
On Monday, a federal judge rejected a settlement between the National Football League and thousands of retired players who sued over concussions and neurological impairments, saying the accord should be expanded to provide payment eligibility for additional players and families.
Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco