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When Can MMA and Other Combat Sports’ Athletes Seek Financial Compensation for Concussions?

Written by Berkowitz

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Mixed martial arts (MMA) and other combat sports inherently present injury risks for the athletes who choose to participate. Along with the risk of soft tissue injuries, facial injuries, and broken bones, this includes the risk of concussions and other types of traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

Data on Concussion Rates in MMA and Other Combat Sports

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Toronto, more than 30 percent of MMA fighters likely experience traumatic brain injuries. The study examined 844 fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and concluded that nearly 13 percent of the fights ended in knockouts and the other 21 percent ended in technical knockouts (TKOs), in which the referee stopped the fight due to significant head trauma. The UFC responded to the University of Toronto’s findings by stating that the study was “somewhat flawed” and that it intended to release its own study in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, but it seems virtually beyond dispute that many fighters – regardless of the specific percentage – suffer concussions during combat.

Another study, published by BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine in 2018, found that approximately 24 percent of amateur and professional MMA fighters studied had suffered concussions, with most fighters suffering multiple concussions. The study also found that, in the aggregate, MMA fighters experience about four concussions per 100 minutes of combat. The study also concluded that “[n]o risk factors for a concussion were shown to be significant,” meaning that all fighters were essentially at equal risk for suffering concussions regardless of their pre-fight medical condition.

In boxing, there is evidence to suggest that athletes suffer concussions in 13 percent of all bouts that are promoted. A systematic review study published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2006 found that female athletes had the highest prevalence of concussions in taekwondo, though this study was published before MMA’s rise into the mainstream.

As an Athlete, What Do These Numbers Mean for You?

As an MMA fighter, boxer, or other combat sports athlete, what do these statistics on concussions in combat sports mean for you? As a willing participant, it is important to be aware of the risks involved, and it is also important to be aware of the symptoms of concussions so that you can seek medical treatment when necessary. Medical researchers are continuing to study and learn more about the long-term health risks associated with concussions, and current research suggests that suffering multiple concussions – particularly in short succession – increases the risk of chronic effects significantly.

Ultimately, however, the bigger question for many combat sports athletes is: When can you seek financial compensation for a concussion? When can you have your medical expenses covered? If you are forced to retire due to the effects of brain trauma, when can you seek compensation for your loss of earnings from future fights?

Legal Considerations for Seeking Financial Compensation for a Combat Sports Concussion

None of these questions are particularly easy to answer. But, with that said, there are a few common misconceptions that we can dispel right away:

Common Misconception #1: Since MMA Fighters, Boxers, and Other Combat Sports Participants Agree to Fight, They Are Responsible for Their Own Injuries

The fact that MMA fighters, boxers, and other combat sports athletes elect to participate in their chosen sports voluntarily does not automatically make them responsible for their own injuries. For evidence of this, it is not necessary to look farther than the NFL concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) litigation. Our firm has successfully represented multiple retired NFL players in lawsuits against the league – even though these players clearly chose to pursue professional football careers.

To be clear, some athletes do put themselves at risk unnecessarily, and when they do, they may in some cases be deemed to assume the risks involved. But, this is not universal among MMA and other combat sports athletes, and concussed athletes will be entitled to pursue claims for financial compensation in a variety of different scenarios.

Common Misconception #2: MMA Fighters, Boxers, and Other Combat Sports Participants Who Sign Waivers Are Unable to Seek Financial Compensation for Concussions

Liability waivers are commonly used by leagues, fight promotions, training gyms, and other facilities. While these waivers are generally enforceable, there are a number of issues that can render liability waivers legally unenforceable. So, while it is true that signing a liability waiver may prevent an athlete from pursuing a concussion claim in some cases, those who have signed waivers should not assume that they are without legal recourse.

Common Misconception #3: Concussed Athletes Who Are Not Pulled from Bouts Should Always Be Entitled to Financial Compensation

On the reverse side, there are those who believe that concussed athletes who are not pulled from fights should be entitled to financial compensation, regardless of the circumstances involved. Typically, the reasoning for this argument is along the lines of the fact that everyone involved is profiting more than the fighters, so these individuals and entities can – and should – reimburse fighters when they get seriously injured.

While this idea is nice in theory, from a legal perspective, it does not hold up. The parties’ financial arrangement is not particularly relevant to the apportionment of liability – particularly when all parties have the ability to negotiate in an arm’s length transaction. While it may seem that league owners and promoters have an ethical responsibility to compensate fighters whose careers are cut short due to traumatic brain injuries (TBI), this generally does not provide a legal basis for fighters to seek financial compensation.

Potential Concussion Claims Involving MMA, Boxing, and Other Combat Sports

With these considerations in mind, when can fighters and other combat sports participants file claims for sports-related concussions? Ultimately, fighters’ rights will be determined based upon the specific facts and circumstances involved in each individual case. Generally speaking, however, potential grounds for seeking financial compensation can include:

  • Deliberate Acts and Blatant Disregard for Athlete Safety – Under Connecticut law, waivers cannot be used to avoid liability for deliberate acts. If a league, promotion, coach, or other entity or individual knowingly puts a fighter’s mental health at risk, then the fighter may have grounds to pursue a claim for damages. Blatant disregard for an athlete’s safety can also provide grounds for voiding a liability waiver in some cases.
  • Failure to Protect an Athlete during a Fight – MMA fighters, boxers, and other combat sports athletes may also be able to pursue compensation claims in cases in which referees, coaches, trainers, or doctors fail to protect them during a fight. As an example, if a fighter is helpless to protect himself or herself and the referee fails to stop the fight before his or her opponent delivers additional head strikes, then the referee (or, more likely, his or her employer) could be liable. Likewise, if a fighter’s corner presses the fighter to stay in the cage or the ring despite obvious signs of impairment, then members of the fighter’s corner could potentially be liable as well.
  • Failure to Timely Diagnose a Concussion – Many concussion-related claims will involve malpractice lawsuits against fighters’ doctors. All doctors are held to medical standards of care, and any deviations from these standards can support claims for malpractice. Diagnostic errors are far and away from the most common medical mistakes, and failure to timely diagnose a concussion can lead to avoidable complications for which health care providers can be held legally accountable.
  • Failure to Provide Appropriate Medical Treatment for a Concussion – In addition to failing to timely diagnose concussions, doctors can also be held liable for failing to provide appropriate medical treatment. Treatment needs for concussion patients can vary widely, depending on factors including (but not limited to) the severity of the injury to the brain and the fighter’s medical history. Doctors must accurately assess fighters’ treatment needs and either timely provide appropriate treatment based on their medical expertise; or, if they lack the necessary expertise, provide fighters with a referral to specialists.
  • Failure to Advise of the Risks of Multiple Concussions and PostConcussive Syndrome – For many fighters, the greatest risks associated with suffering a concussion during combat relate to suffering a subsequent traumatic brain injury. Post-concussive syndrome and second impact syndrome are both very real concerns, and studies have shown that suffering multiple concussions in relatively short succession can compound the risks for fighters and other athletes. This includes the risk of developing CTE. If a doctor fails to advise an athlete of the risks of suffering multiple concussions and the athlete returns to training or combat before his or her brain has fully recovered, this could potentially support a malpractice claim against the doctor.

What Should You Do If You Are Experiencing Symptoms or Have Been Diagnosed with a Concussion (Or Multiple Concussions) as a Combat Sports Athlete?

Given these potential claims, if you are a combat sports athlete and you are experiencing symptoms of a concussion, or if you have been diagnosed with a concussion (or multiple concussions) as an amateur or professional fighter, what should you do?

First and foremost, if you have not already seen a doctor, you should do so promptly. As indicated above, concussions from combat sports can have serious and long-term ramifications, and you need to make sure you receive appropriate medical care as soon as possible.

Second, you should discuss your situation with an attorney. While we wish we could provide a simple, straightforward answer for all combat sports athletes, the fact of the matter is that individual fighters’ rights need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. At Berkowitz Hanna, our attorneys have significant experience representing athletes in concussion lawsuits. If you have questions, we encourage you to contact us for a free initial consultation.

Schedule a Free Initial Consultation with a Trusted Attorney

Would you like to speak with an attorney about the possibility of filing a concussion lawsuit? If so, we encourage you to get in touch. To speak with one of our sports concussion attorneys in confidence, call us directly, or request an appointment online today.