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First Jury Verdict in Football-Brain Disease Case Upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

October 1, 2021


On September 1, 2021, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rejected Matthew Onyshko’s Petition for Allowance of Appeal to revive his lawsuit against the NCAA.

In 2014, Onyshko, a former linebacker for California University of Pennsylvania (“Cal U”), brought a negligence action against the NCAA seeking $9.6 million in damages for failure to warn of the long-term effects of repeated head trauma from football. Onyshko suffered over twenty concussions, three of which resulted in loss of consciousness. He experienced severe headaches and loss of mobility among other neurological symptoms, which progressively worsened. Onyshko was ultimately diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“ALS”). He is now confined to a wheelchair and utilizes an eye-tracking computer system to speak. It is worth noting that Onyshko had no genetic predisposition to ALS.

As the first football-related case concerning ALS to go to trial, following the highly publicized, first-ever football-brain disease trial—Ploetz v. NCAA, a sixteen-person jury heard Onyshko’s case in May 2019. The jury found for the NCAA; however, the verdict provided little clarity as to whether the NCAA had a duty and if so, whether it breached that duty. The verdict slip read: “Was the [NCAA] negligent? No.”

In August 2020, Onyshko asked the Superior Court of Pennsylvania for a new trial. On January 8, 2021, the Superior Court’s panel of three judges denied the request.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania then rejected Onyshko’s efforts to appeal his case, ultimately ending his fight to hold the NCAA accountable. While this decision does not provide guidance on how all future sports-related brain disease cases will be decided, it does serve to reinforce the takeaway that these are fact-dependent cases for which many of the critical threshold legal and factual questions still remain unanswered. The NCAA’s efforts to offer evidence that Cal U informed student athletes of the short and long-term effects of repeated head injuries were allowed and have proven successful. It remains unclear whether that strategy will be allowed in similar cases moving forward.

For more on Onyshko’s legal battle with the NCAA see our other articles covering his lawsuit in our Sports Medicine and the Law newsletter:

Sports Medicine and the Law: Spring 2021

Sports Medicine and the Law: Summer 2019