By Iliana Limón Romero | Orlando Sentinel
5:29 PM CST, February 21, 2013
DAYTONA BEACH — Nearly five years after UCF football player Ereck Plancher's death, the UCF Athletics Association presented its appeal arguing it should pay little to no damages to his family.
Attorneys representing the UCF Athletics Association, along with its insurance company, and the Plancher family delivered oral arguments at the 5th District Court of Appeal Thursday morning.
The judges spent the majority of the session focused on whether UCFAA is a private entity or a state agency. Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans previously ruled UCFAA operated as a private corporation and was not entitled to state protection that limited the amount it could pay the Plancher family to $200,000. The balance of the jury's award would have to be approved by the Legislature.
UCFAA attorneys reiterated their argument UCF President John Hitt, a state employee, has full control over the athletics association and it should be viewed as a state agency. Plancher attorneys countered court testimony and other court records show Hitt lacked sufficient control over the institution during the time of Plancher's death.
“The helmets say UCF, the school board says UCF, it's the UCF Knights and the university itself is a member of the NCAA,” UCF spokesman Grant Heston said after the hearing, echoing one of the judge’s remarks during the hearing about the link between the football program and the main university.
Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid countered the NCAA determined UCF’s administrators lacked institutional control over the athletics program, a charge Hitt did not dispute at the conclusion of an investigation into football and men’s basketball recruiting practices.
The earliest the panel of three judges could hand down a ruling is Tuesday, although it could take much longer to weigh three major issues at the center of UCFAA's appeal.
Plancher, a 19-year-old wide receiver, died in March 2008 following offseason conditioning drills on the UCF campus supervised by football coaches and staff members.
His parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit. Their attorneys argued Plancher died of complications from sickle-cell trait and UCFAA staff failed to follow procedures that could have saved his life. UCFAA said an undiagnosed heart condition caused Plancher's death and nothing could have been done to save his life.
In July 2011, a jury ruled the UCF Athletics Association, the entity that runs UCF's athletics department, was negligent in the players' death and awarded $10 million to his parents. The judgment was so far in excess of settlement offers, the Plancher attorneys were eligible to seek their payment for their fees. The total sum owed to the Plancher family has swelled to nearly $15 million.
UCFAA vowed to appeal the decision shortly after the jury read its judgment in 2011 and held to its word.
In addition to UCFAA’s status as a state agency, the judges discussed UCFAA's argument a medical authorization waiver absolved it of all liability. Two of the judges questioned whether a person signing the waiver reasonably should expect to surrender all rights if the school failed to observe its own policies.
If the judges agree with UCFAA, the Plancher family would have to appeal to a higher court or the case would be dismissed.
The court also heard arguments about the Plancher family's right to seek payment for legal fees. UCFAA argued the fees should not be paid if the judges rule it is a state agency and eligible for a $200,000 settlement cap.
Plancher family attorney Stacy D. Blank responded the jury's decision would still stand, even if the majority of settlement had to be approved by the Legislature.
Blank also noted UCFAA and its insurance company, Great American, were both named in the final judgment. She argued while UCFAA may have state settlement protection known as sovereign immunity, the insurance company did not. She said Great American should have listed itself as a conditional member of the judgment if it didn't expect to pay the balance of the jury's award.
One of the judges and a UCFAA attorney countered the argument had never previously been raised and a lower court should explore what the insurance company must pay beyond $200,000.
The court spent no time during oral augments listening to debate over the way the judge managed the trial. UCFAA relied on its written petition to highlight what it called Evans’ unfair treatment of UCFAA attorneys and distribution of time during the trial unfair.
If the appeal court agrees with UCFAA, the decision would trigger a new trial.