Seven years after University of Central Florida football player Ereck Plancher collapsed and died during conditioning drills, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that his parents are limited to collecting $200,000 in a lawsuit they filed in the high-profile death.
Justices, in a 6-0 decision, found that UCF Athletics Association, Inc., which administers the university's athletics department, is covered by the state's sovereign-immunity law. That law shields government agencies from having to pay huge legal judgments – and, as applied to the Plancher case, limits the payment to $200,000.
A jury in 2011 said Plancher's parents should receive $10 million, but the 5th District Court of Appeal in 2013 rejected that award because of sovereign immunity. The case then went to the Supreme Court. With Thursday's ruling, the family would need to convince state lawmakers to pass what is known as a "claim" bill to be able to collect more than $200,000.
The appeals in the case focused heavily on whether UCF Athletics Association, Inc. is an arm of the university or whether it operates with little day-to-day control by the university and should not receive sovereign-immunity.
In a 14-page opinion, Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston wrote that the university created the association as what is known as a "direct support organization." Also, he wrote that the university has control over issues such as the association's board of directors, operations and budget.
"The Planchers argue that UCF does not have sufficient control over UCFAA's (the association's) day-to-day operations to entitle UCFAA to limited sovereign immunity under (the section of state law). We disagree,'' Polston wrote. Justice James E.C. Perry was recused from the case.
Ereck Plancher collapsed and died March 18, 2008, and the case drew widespread attention, at least in part, because of questions about football coach George O'Leary's handling of the drills.
In a brief filed in the Supreme Court, attorneys for the Plancher family described Ereck Plancher as a "real-life example of the American dream" who arrived at UCF shortly after turning 18 and died 14 months later. The attorneys argued that the UCF Athletics Association should not be covered by sovereign immunity, as it was the result of the university "privatizing" the athletics program.
"UCFAA wants to enjoy the benefits of operating as a private corporation, free from any state control, while at the same time shielding itself from liability as if it were a state agency,'' the brief, filed last year, said. "UCFAA cannot have it both ways."
But attorneys for the association filed a brief disputing such characterizations —- and, ultimately, the Supreme Court sided Thursday with the association's position.
"Simply put, UCF has complete authority to control UCFAA,'' the association's brief, filed last year, said. "UCF controls UCFAA's operations, its finances, and even its existence. UCFAA is a captive and entirely subservient entity, created by UCF and existing for the sole purpose of serving UCF by administering its athletics department."