Derek Boogaard's family sues NHL

Updated: May 13, 2013, 4:45 PM ET
By Katie Strang | ESPNNewYork.com

A Chicago law firm has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NHL on behalf of the family of Derek Boogaard, who died in 2011 at the age of 28.

In the lawsuit, the family says the league is responsible for the brain damage that Boogaard, a defenseman who played for the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers, suffered during six seasons as an enforcer, as well as his addiction to prescription painkillers.

Boogaard died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol on May 13, 2011. He was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain ailment that is caused by repeated blows to the head and can be diagnosed only after death.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the suit had been filed.

According to the lawsuit, filed Friday in the Circuit Court of Cook County, the league acted negligently in his death, especially regarding the use of painkillers.

The NHL, which declined to comment, has not been officially served with the suit, multiple sources confirmed to ESPNNewYork.com, but will have a deadline within which to respond once that happens. After that, there is expected to be a "discovery" process that could take months or even years.

The lawsuit alleges the NHL breached its duty to keep Boogaard "reasonably safe" and to "refrain from causing addiction to controlled substances."

William Gibbs, of the Chicago-based law firm Corboy and Demetrio and who is representing the Boogaard family, said the suit essentially claims the league failed Boogaard, a player with a known substance-abuse problem.

"The NHL picks Derek because he's huge -- 6-7, 270 pounds, and tenacious -- to be a fighter," Gibbs said during a telephone interview with ESPNNewYork.com. "The fighting that he is engaged in takes its toll on both his body and mind.

"Regarding the toll that it takes on his body, team doctors prescribe amazing amounts of prescription pain pills that they know are highly addictive. He becomes addicted and when the family then expresses concern about his addiction, the NHL says to them, 'We will take care of this, we've got the best system to deal with this.' And as we can tell, that system didn't work."

The defendants named in the lawsuit include the NHL, the NHL Board of Governors and league commissioner Gary Bettman. Gibbs could not say whether there will be additional lawsuits filed.

"Our focus is on a league level that the dispensing of pain pills can only really be controlled or seen from the eyes of leagues, and so they should be the ones to have a proper mechanism in place," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said he expected the NHL to respond to the suit in the next 30 or 45 days.

The suit details the prescriptions Boogaard received -- more than 40, for a total of 1,201 painkillers from the Wild medical staff during the 2008-09 season, and more than 17 prescriptions for a total of 366 pills from the Rangers' staff during the 2010-11 season.

Boogaard sought treatment through the NHL's substance abuse and behavioral health program multiple times for an addiction to painkillers. He was never funneled into Stage 2 or 3 of the multitiered program, despite additional transgressions that should have earned him a suspension without pay.

According to postmortem toxicology reports, Boogaard had a blood-alcohol level of .18 (the legal limit in most states is .08) as well as oxycodone in his system.

"Instead of having something with meat to it, the league just kinda turned a blind eye to the relapse and gave, I think, him a false sense of feeling that this addiction was not a big deal when in fact it was a very, very big deal," Gibbs said.

Boogaard also received injections of Toradol on at least 13 occasions. The lawsuit alleges Boogaard was not told of the risks between the "potent analgesic" and the risk of CTE.

"The way that professional sports deals with players' pain is a major issue, on both the medication front and the injection front," Gibbs said.

Though the jurisdiction does not allow Boogaard's estate representatives to put a specific dollar amount on damages they are seeking, the lawsuit is "demanding judgment against defendant, NHL, for a sum in excess of the minimum jurisdictional limit for the Law Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County."

Known as one of the league's toughest fighters, Boogaard played 277 NHL games, scored three goals and racked up 589 penalty minutes.

Boogaard's family filed a lawsuit against the NHL Players' Association in September 2012, seeking $9.8 million in damages, but it was dismissed this spring. The family said the union, after expressing interest in helping pursue a case against the league, missed a deadline for filing a grievance. A judge ruled the family waited too long to act and dismissed the case.

ESPN sports business analyst Andrew Brandt and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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