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Minnesota Supreme Court: Vikings not responsible for lineman's concussion-related dementia

Star Tribune - 7/31/2019

A former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman who claims his dementia is related to multiple concussions during his years with the team saw his permanent total workers' compensation award thrown out by the state Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The court said the Vikings' treatment of Alapati "Al" Noga's headaches with over-the-counter medicines was sufficient and that his claim, filed in 2015, came too late. The 6-0 decision dismissed Noga's disability award from a lower court.

Noga, who played for the Vikings from 1988-1992 tackled with a "headfirst style" beginning in high school and suffered from headaches even then, the court said. When he played in the NFL, he continued to lead with his head, something the league has since banned as awareness of the long-term impact of concussions has grown in recent years.

While playing with the Vikings, Noga suffered "a number of orthopedic injuries that kept him from playing games periodically," and also experienced head injuries and headaches, the court said. When Noga had a headache after a hit, team trainers and doctors would give him Advil or Tylenol.

Through weighing of multiple factors, the court determined that the Vikings didn't have "a conscious sense of obligation" for Noga's later dementia. The court also said he should have filed his claim for dementia compensation no later than 2010 to stay within the statute of limitations. Justice Natalie Hudson wrote the 23-page decision. Justice Anne McKeig didn't participate in the ruling.

Nothing in the record indicated the Vikings should have known Noga was at risk of developing work-related dementia when staff provided him with Advil or Tylenol.

"Medical awareness of the connection between and among head injuries, possible concussions, and the potential long-term neurological effects of those events had not yet developed" at the time Noga played for the Vikings, Hudson wrote.

Noga's lawyers, John Lorentz and Ray Peterson, issued a statement, saying they're disappointed and concerned about retired athletes in Minnesota who suffer Noga's fate: slow, progressive dementia, caused by work-related concussions that occurred decades ago.

"The workers' compensation system was adopted to provide compensation and care for injured workers.," they wrote. "Under today's decision, many professional athletes in this situation will not receive that compensation and care."

During the legal process, Noga testified that as a player, he didn't want to tell trainers "too much" about his head injuries because staff sometimes told him, "you're always hurting" and that made him believe he should keep to himself if he wanted to continue to play.

When he told team doctors he was feeling woozy, Noga testified he was told "fight through it, it's my job, that's what they pay me for."

According to the court, the Vikings training records contain only one mention of treatment for headaches on Sept. 1, 1990, when Noga didn't report for conditioning because he "had a headache."

After leaving the Vikings, Noga played for the NFL team from Washington, D.C., for the 1993 season and part of the 1994 season for the Indianapolis Colts. He then played in the Arena League until 1999.

In 2001, Noga filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits because of various orthopedic injuries suffered while playing. In connection with that claim, a physician who examined him listed in 2004 that he suffered 10 orthopedic and two neurological injuries while playing for the Vikings. The doctor said Noga needed to be evaluated for blackout and headache problems.

Part of Noga's argument was that the 2004 claim and examination served as legal notice of a claim and were within the statute of limitations. But the court disagreed.

In 2014, a neuropsychologist diagnosed Noga with dementia, stating that the history of concussions wasn't the sole cause, but a "significantly contributing factor." In May 2015, a second neuropsychologist found Noga to be totally disabled from dementia but attributed the problem to his past drug use and head trauma in a 2011 car accident.

During Noga's playing days, the NFL had no protocol for evaluating and treating head injuries. That has since changed.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson

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(c)2019 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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