The NFL's Medical Care Faces Scrutiny Malpractice Suit by Former Jaguars Lineman Jeff Novak Offers Rare Look at How Teams Make Medical Decisions

Article excerpt

Byline: Gene Frenette, Times-Union staff writer

Nobody thought a shin injury to former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman Jeff Novak would become grounds for Case No. 00-04156-CA.

The trial, scheduled to start tomorrow in Jacksonville's Fourth Judicial Circuit Court, is expected to provide rare insight into how medical decisions are made in the National Football League; the pressures to play with pain; and the complex relationships among players, coaches and team doctors.

It also could serve as a catalyst to standardize medical policies in the NFL.

Novak, 34, filed his medical malpractice lawsuit in 2000 against former team physician Stephen Lucie and his employer, Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute. The Jaguars are not named in the suit, but several current and former players and team officials are expected to testify.

Novak's suit alleges that Lucie cleared him to practice instead of resting the shin injury. A large hematoma formed on his right leg that led to several bleeding episodes, two emergency surgeries, serious infections and Novak's eventual retirement from the NFL, the suit states. A hematoma is a collection of blood underneath a bruise.

Novak is seeking unspecified damages for lost income, pain and suffering.

Lucie claims Novak contributed to his own debilitating condition by failing to follow instructions from health care providers, failing to avoid activities harmful to his health and not taking recommended medications.

Lucie declined to discuss specifics in the case but said in a prepared statement: "In reviewing this matter, it is very clear that the care and treatment of Jeff Novak was absolutely proper."

Also at issue is a back injury in late 1998 that landed Novak on injured reserve, ending his season. The Jaguars did not re-sign him. Whether the back and leg injuries were related is likely to be explored at trial.

"If I thought it was just one mistake that led to my medical condition, I don't know that we'd be going through everything we are right now," Novak said in a recent interview. "I believe it was a series of mistakes and misjudgments on Dr. Lucie's part that led us down this road."

Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said in an interview, "It's unfortunate what happened, but I personally think this is more about Jeff not being in the NFL today than the medical care he got."

Barring a settlement, it will be only the second trial in recent years involving a former NFL player suing a doctor. Workers' compensation laws often protect team physicians from litigation unless, as in Lucie's case, they are an independent contractor. Some NFL teams directly employ doctors.

The NFL Players Association hopes Novak's claim will bolster its efforts for a standardized system of medical decision-making in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

"I'm not saying the system needs to be scrapped and start over," said Doug Allen, the NFLPA's assistant executive director. "The idea is to add to a system that's got a lot of good things going for it and trying to make it better.

"We want it to be standard so the player in San Diego gets the same medical care as the player in New England and I'm using those teams only because they are so far apart geographically. I don't think anybody would argue that the league and the players are better served if we improve the medical care that's available."

That includes a question raised by court documents examined by The Florida Times-Union: Who is the final medical authority?

NFL teams, including the Jaguars, don't openly discuss their medical policies. Both Lucie and Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said in depositions that doctors have the final say about a player's condition and medical readiness to play. But Lucie's and others' depositions raise questions about how much of the decision rests with a player:

"You could have just said, 'Don't play football until that heals over,' is that right? …

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