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Ted Agu's Death; a Lawsuit; a Legal Perspective

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Back in February, Ted Agu was pulled off a supervised run, rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, and was pronounced dead upon his arrival at the hospital. Now his family has filed a wrongful death claim against the University of California.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Ted Agu's story was supposed to be a feel good story. He came to Cal wanting to be a Bear. He started off as a walk on and busted his butt for a long time. Eventually, he was awarded a scholarship. He was set to be a fifth year senior this season, and he meant a lot to the team, his family and the community.

On February 7 of this year, he was on a supervised run with the team. This is what the coroner's report says:

The coroner found that there was no trauma, foul play, alcohol or drugs involved in Agu’s death. The report stated that it was unknown whether he used performance enhancing drugs, although his family and teammates were not aware of any such use.

Agu’s roommate and Cal quarterback Austin Hinder told police that Agu appeared "extra tired" earlier in the week after completing practices and became winded when running. He also said Agu couldn’t stop sneezing three days prior to his death. The family told the coroner that Agu’s only known medical problems were allergies, but he was otherwise healthy.

The morning of his death, Agu was running with the team and leading the group until the final lap when he became noticeably tired, according to a report from UCPD Officer Harry Bennigson, the detective assigned to the case.

Agu eventually stopped running and took a knee to catch his breath. After he lost consciousness, his teammates initiated cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and Agu was transported by cart back to Memorial Stadium where a medical facility is located. Before reaching the stadium, paramedics arrived and took him to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, according to the coroner’s report. At 7:52 a.m., the 21-year-old was pronounced dead.

The Agu family attorney released a statement before the complaint was formally filed on August 7, yesterday. Here is what they said happened:

"Agu was placed in a conditioning drill that was inappropriate and too extreme given his known medical condition," the attorneys wrote in a news release. They said he experienced dizziness, shortness of breath, loss of balance and other signs of extreme fatigue that were "clearly symptomatic of the sickling process ... and should have been observed."

The attorneys are also stating that Agu had previously tested positive for the sickle trait, and that the university was aware of his condition, but chose to have him do the workout regardless. I think it should also be noted that the attorney for the Agu family represented Erik Plancher, a UCF football player who died back in 2011 from a similar workout.

The Law

A wrongful death claim is simply a special negligence claim. Basic negligence law says that if a person has a duty of care to another person and they breach that duty (i.e. a person runs a red light and hits a pedestrian), a lawsuit can be filed. Granted there has to be actual damages to the person that was owed the duty of care, most often the case hinges on whether or not there was a duty of care in the first place. A wrongful death claim is basically a negligence claim filed by the family members of a deceased person who died because of the negligence of another person.

Duty of Care

A big portion of the University's defense will hinge on what their duty of care to Ted Agu actually was. If their statements are true, and they didn't know Ted was experiencing difficulty until the end of the run, then they will more than likely win their case. In that scenario, they did everything possible to help Ted when they realized he was distressed.

However, they have a completely different duty of care if they knew Ted had the sickle trait prior to the run. According to CBS Sports, complications related to sickle cell trait have been the leading cause of death of Division I college football players since 2000. If that's the case, which I find hard to argue with, Cal was on notice of the limitations of athletes with the sickle trait. Their trainers understand the risks to athletes with the sickle trait. The National Athletic Trainer's Association consensus statement and guidelines state that "athletes who carry the trait do not have sickle cell anemia. However, during periods of extreme exertion, red blood cells of those who carry the gene can "sickle," restricting oxygen to muscles and organs and posing a "grave risk."

If it turns out that Cal did know of Agu's sickle trait, they had a clear duty to make sure that he didn't overexert himself in training exercises.

Breach of Duty

After the fact that a duty exists between the Cal Trainers and Ted, the next question is whether the trainers and staff acted reasonable, given the circumstances. Like I mentioned above, this depends on when they knowledge of Ted's sickle trait became known to the university. If they didn't know of his sickle trait until the coroner's report was released, they acted reasonably, since they got him medical treatment as soon a possible.

However, if the University knew about his sickle trait before the workout, the question of reasonableness get a whole lot more difficult. The court will have to look at national standards in dealing with athletes having the sickle trait. Odds are, workouts like the one causing Agu's death are on the "don't do this" list.

Conclusion

I haven't had a chance to look at the complaint, but it looks like Cal is going to be in a world of hurt. The last time this happened - back in 2011 - the jury found UCF was negligent, and they awarded the athlete's family a $15,000,000 judgment. However, regardless of where this goes, it's clear that universities need to do a much better job taking care of their kids.