May 13, 2013 -- The family of former New York Rangers hockey player Derek Boogaard, who died in 2011 of an accidental drug overdose, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the National Hockey League.
The family claims that league doctors prescribed Boogaard thousands of painkiller pills for his injuries, and continued to prescribe the painkillers even after learning of Boogaard's battle with addiction. The family also claims that Boogaard wasn't informed of the higher risk of injury, and the potential for painkiller addiction, associated with his "enforcer" hockey position.
"It appears there was a total system failure on all parts," Paul Anderson, a Missouri lawyer who blogs on cases about athletes' rights, told ABCNews.com. "That's going to be at the heart of this case. Why did they continue to supply him with drugs?"
Boogaard, who was 28 at the time, was found dead in his apartment on May 13, 2011, and the family had a two- year statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death case. The lawsuit, filed on May 10, 2013, attributes Boogaard's death to a combination of brain damage and drug abuse brought on by his time in the NHL.
The family did not specify damages to be awarded in the eight-count suit, but asked for "a sum in excess of the minimum jurisdictional limit."
The 55-page filing alleges that Minnesota Wild team doctors prescribed Boogaard 150 oxycodone pills in the 16 days following nearly back-to-back nasal and shoulder surgeries in 2009, which, they claim, prompted his addiction. According to the lawsuit, the team's physicians prescribed 1,021 pills to Boogaard during that season.
Two years later, when Boogaard joined the New York Rangers, his team doctors prescribed 366 pills over the course of the season, according to the lawsuit.
"The NHL owed a duty to Derek Boogaard to keep him reasonably safe during his NHL career and to refrain from causing an addiction to controlled substances," the lawsuit states, alleging that the NHL "breached" this duty by failing to warn Boogaard of the possible dangers, and to monitor him.The NHL also lacked a system to prevent multiple doctors from writing duplicate prescriptions, the lawsuit alleges.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement that the NHL had not yet received the complaint.
"As with any litigation, we will handle it in the ordinary course and will have no comment," Daly said.
Boogard went to rehabilitation twice but resisted treatment, according to the lawsuit. He died of an accidental drug overdose the night after he was released from his second stay at a rehabilitation facility.
A few months after Boogaard's death, two fellow NHL 'enforcers' died of apparent suicides. Rick Rypien, 27, of the Winnipeg Jets and Wade Belak, 35, died within two weeks of one another in August 2011.
In December 2011, researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy diagnosed Boogaard with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a degenerative brain disease brought on by repeated hits to the head that can result in confusion, depression and, eventually, dementia.
The lawsuit alleges that CTE damaged Boogaard's brain in the areas that "control judgment, inhibition, mood, behavior and impulse control."
Anderson, who is not involved in Boogaard's case, called the lawsuit "explosive."
"This case may be the case which forces the NHL's hand to ban fighting altogether," Anderson said. "I think this could be the first major step in the groundwork in which we start seeing transition from NFL concussion litigation to now NHL litigation."
The case follows several similar lawsuits filed against the National Football League, which call into question how much responsibility the league has to inform players of risks and keep them safe. More than two years after the first suit was filed, however, a federal judge in Philadelphia has yet to determine whether more than 200 lawsuits filed on behalf of more than 4,300 former NFL players should go to trial or be settled by arbitration as a labor dispute.
"I would say if a case gets into arbitration, it's going to favor management, the NHL," Anderson said, adding that the dispute would also happen behind closed doors. "They're not going to have the opportunity to depose members of the NHL and really try to find out what they knew and when they knew it."
The Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy announced in December that of the 85 brains donated by the families of deceased veterans and athletes with histories of repeated head trauma, its researchers found CTE in 68 of them. Four of them played for the NHL and one was an amateur hockey player.
Dr. Mike Fingerhood, a professor and addiction specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said it's especially hard for athletes like Boogaard to overcome their addictions to pain medications because injuries are part of their jobs. He said the number of players battling addiction is probably underreported.
"In violent sports, like hockey and football, players unfortunately are left with having repeated injuries," he said. "If someone has an addiction, they're set up to have problems."
Still, Fingerhood said Boogaard's CTE is separate from his addiction because he wasn't prescribed painkillers for head injuries. He said it's also not yet clear whether CTE leads to substance abuse.