A state appeals court Friday sided with a family that filed a lawsuit against Stetson University over the death of a 19-year-old football player who collapsed on the sideline during a 2017 practice.
A three-judge panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned a 2021 ruling by Volusia County Circuit Judge Kathryn Weston that said Stetson was shielded from liability by releases that Nick Blakely signed to play football. Weston granted summary judgment to the university, short-circuiting a potential trial in the case.
The appeals court said what is known as an exculpatory clause in the releases “did not expressly inform Blakely that by executing the document at issue, he would be contracting away his right to sue Stetson for Stetson’s own negligence.”
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Also, the 14-page decision, written by Judge Kerry Evander and joined by Chief Judge Brian Lambert and Judge John Harris, said other parts of the releases made the exculpatory clause “unclear and ambiguous.” The decision said Weston erred in granting summary judgment and sent the case back to the lower court.
Blakely, a sophomore accounting major from Lawrenceville, Ga., pulled himself out of a practice on Aug. 28, 2017, and complained to an assistant athletic trainer that he felt dizzy and his chest felt tight, according to Friday’s decision. On the sideline, the assistant athletic trainer took Blakely’s pulse, gave him water and had him stand in the shade.
After resting for about 45 minutes, Blakely collapsed. Stetson workers tried to revive Blakely, but he died at a hospital. Friday’s decision did not detail the cause of death but described it as a “cardiac death.”
The appeals court cited evidence that Blakely had complained of chest pain during an April 2017 practice and had also told a trainer that he experienced one or two incidents of chest pain in high school that had resolved quickly.
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“The chest pain incident of April 2017 also resolved in just a few minutes,” Evander wrote. “The assistant athletic trainer did not document the April incident or otherwise do anything with the information provided by Blakely. Furthermore, when Blakely returned to school after summer break, Stetson did not have him undergo a physical examination prior to him participating on the football team for the upcoming season.”
In her September 2021 ruling granting summary judgment, Weston concluded that the releases, which Blakely signed in 2016 and 2017, “were intended to release every sort of possible claim and would be clear to even someone who was not an adult that executing them would release all claims.”
“The language of the releases is clear and understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person would know what is being contracted away,” Weston wrote.
In another part of Friday’s decision, the appeals court said Blakely’s family cannot pursue punitive damages in the case.