WCU settles wrongful death suit with football player’s family

Western Carolina University has agreed to a $600,000 out-of-court settlment in a civil suit brought by the family of Ja’Quayvin Smalls, a junior defensive back from Mount Pleasant, S.C. who died during an off-season football practice in July 2009.

Smalls had painful cramping during the workout and was taken to the sideline to rest, but then stopped breathing shortly thereafter and could not be resuscitated. Autopsy reports indicate Smalls died from complications due to the sickle cell trait, which can be triggered by over-exertion.

The trait is one of the leading causes of death among college football players and is more prevalent in the African American community. After the incident, WCU began the mandatory testing of athletes for the sickle cell trait.

But the issue was not settled. In January 2011, Smalls’ family sued the university, claiming athletic staff was liable in his death. This past summer, a judge gave a summary judgment in favor of the defendants; however, the prospect of a prolonged appeal and potential jury trial put the two parties back at the negotiating table, which proved successful.

WCU agreed to pay the family $600,000, but the agreement does not include any admission of guilt or liability by the WCU staff.

“Wrongful death suits are the most difficult suits for anybody to deal with — you’re dealing with the death of a great young man,” said Mary Ann Lochner, WCU’s legal counsel. “At the same time, we are happy the matter is settled, and hopefully, Smalls’ family can move forward, and hopefully, our employees as well.”

The lawyers representing the Smalls family could not be reached for comment.

— By Andrew Kasper

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