July 17, 2015 / 1:59 PM / 2 years ago

FIFA, others defeat U.S. soccer concussion lawsuit

The logo of soccer's international governing body FIFA is seen on its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge has dismissed a lawsuit by soccer players and parents seeking to force FIFA and other governing bodies to change the sport’s rules to limit the risk of concussions and other head injuries, especially for children.

In a decision on Thursday, Chief Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the federal court in Oakland, California, said the plaintiffs could not use the courts to change FIFA’s “laws of the game,” noting it was their decision to play soccer.

“Plaintiffs have acknowledged that ‘injuries’ are a ‘part of soccer,'” Hamilton wrote, citing the complaint. “Those who participate in a sporting activity that poses an inherent risk of injury generally assume the risk that they may be injured while doing so.”

The judge also said FIFA was not a proper defendant because there was “no connection” between the lawsuit and any activity that the sport’s international governing body, which is based in Switzerland, undertook in California.

Claims against FIFA were dismissed with prejudice, meaning they cannot be brought again.

Hamilton said claims against bodies such as the United States Soccer Federation and various youth and club soccer organizations can be brought again if the plaintiffs show they have standing to sue, including by demonstrating injury.

“We will amend the complaint to satisfy the court’s order and appeal the FIFA ruling,” Steve Berman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an email.

FIFA said in a statement that it welcomed the decision, and through its medical committee would continue monitoring issues affecting players’ health. Lawyers for the other defendants did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit is not related to the ongoing corruption scandal at FIFA, whose full name is Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

Hamilton’s 46-page decision is a setback for efforts to make soccer, considered the world’s most popular sport with roughly a quarter billion participants, safer to play.

The proposed class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of seven players, including four under the age of 17.

They sought a variety of rule changes, including limiting headers by players under 17, and making it easier to substitute during games for players experiencing head trauma.

The plaintiffs also sought medical monitoring for people who have played the sport since 2002. Money damages were not sought.

THOUSANDS OF CONCUSSIONS

According to the complaint, 46,200 U.S. high school soccer players suffered concussions in 2010, more than from baseball, basketball, softball and wrestling combined.

At least 30 percent of soccer concussions come from heading or attempting to head balls, the complaint said.

But only one of the seven plaintiffs claimed she suffered a concussion from playing soccer, and Hamilton said this appeared to be a one-time injury that ended with a full recovery.

She also called it “too speculative” to assume the other plaintiffs might suffer concussions in the future, and thus they did not deserve standing to seek rule and protocol changes.

Other lawsuits over concussions have been filed in recent years against the National Football League, the National Hockey League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

A recent settlement between the NFL and roughly 5,000 retired players could reach $1 billion.

Though the soccer lawsuit was dismissed, “this is not the end of the day for claims against the soccer federations,” said Michael Kaplen, a lawyer specializing in traumatic brain injuries who teaches at George Washington University Law School.

“Groups are trying to market these sports as safe, when they are not,” he said in an interview. “Unless and until officials and medical professionals testify under oath, the truth will never come out.”

The case is Mehr et al. v. Fédération Internationale de Football Association et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 14-03879.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker

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