PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The federal judge overseeing the $1 billion NFL concussion settlement has terminated three of four lawyers serving as class counsel.
The surprise order Friday afternoon comes just weeks after a hearing to air complaints about new rules that limit the doctors who can evaluate retired players for dementia and other brain injuries.
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody says she imposed the 150-miles-from-home rule to thwart doctor shopping and potential fraud alleged by the NFL as the more than $1 billion settlement fund is disbursed.
She has named New York lawyer Christopher Seeger as the only attorney left who can handle issues on behalf of the 20,000-member class.
Outgoing class counsel Gene Locks tells The Associated Press the order Friday "extinguishes any remaining hope" that clients will be protected as they move through the contentious medical testing and award process.
He told Brody at a hearing this month that there aren't enough qualified neurologists, neuropsychologists and subspecialists taking part in the program to meet the close-to-home rule.
"This court has been told, many times, in motions and in camera (chambers), factual arguments from the NFL that have been exaggerated and intended to limit their obligations to the players," Locks said.
He said the order Friday is in keeping with Brody's denial of repeated motions filed by anyone other than Seeger.
"At this point, (it) extinguishes any remaining hope that the individual interests of the class members will be adequately protected," Locks told the AP.
Seeger, in a statement, vowed to "continue to fight on behalf of former players and their families to ensure that they receive every benefit they deserve under the settlement."
Lawyers involved in the long-running case are meanwhile splitting more than $112 million in fees, with the lion's share going to Seeger's firm. He was not one of the first to bring suit against the NFL, but became a lead lawyer in the secret negotiations that led to a surprise 2013 settlement. The players' lawsuits had alleged the NFL long hid what it knew about the neurological risks of playing after concussions.
The fund is meant to last for 65 years. The awards in the first two years of payouts alone reached $500 million this month, while another $160 million in awards have been approved but not yet paid.
The plan offers retired players baseline testing and compensation of up to $5 million for the most serious illnesses linked to football concussions, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and deaths involving chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Of the 872 awards paid to date, the average is just under $575,000, according to a claims administrator's report this month.