Risk Insider: Joe Cellura

The Expanding Liability of Sports Concussions

By: | May 3, 2018 • 3 min read
Joe Cellura is President, North American Casualty, at Allied World, responsible for for the production and profitability of Primary Casualty, Excess Casualty, Environmental, Surety, Primary Construction and Programs. He can be reached at [email protected]

Since we examined the issue of head trauma two years ago, concussion awareness has gained tremendous traction.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on the angst-ridden faces of parents watching from the sidelines after their young player sustains a hit to the head.  Should the player be sidelined or continue to play?  The vast majority of sports organizations have protocols in place to address potential concussions.  Parents of youth and high school athletes also sign waivers acknowledging that brain damage is now a risk of the game.  Still, in a sports-loving culture, it’s a tough call.

Think about the star player with the big game days away or the high school athlete performing for college scouts.  Once diagnosed with multiple concussions, a young player may be forced to retire from the sport that has been central to their life.  No wonder some 50 percent of concussed athletes are not reporting injuries.

Immediate on-field diagnosis of concussions remains challenging.  Even the NFL is still learning.  This past season, Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage was let back into a game after a major hit from the San Francisco 49ers defense, despite TV cameras recording his hands twitching alarmingly after he went down.  He was later further evaluated and removed from the game.  This delayed diagnosis was hardly an isolated incident and the NFL continues to refine its protocols.

Brain science, on the other hand, is increasingly black and white.  It clearly evidences the long-term damage of concussions, including Alzheimer’s, dementia and CTE.  If a concussed athlete is returned to play too soon, the ramifications of a second hit can be immediate: permanent brain damage and even death.

It’s not just lives at stake.  Sports organizations face potentially massive legacy exposures and ongoing concussion liability every day they continue to play.  Following the 2016 NFL settlement, organizations throughout the sports world have been bracing for impact.  Class action litigation against the NCAA continues and is expanding, with an estimated class of 4.4 million student-athletes amassed over decades. Litigation is trickling down to the local level, targeting schools and municipalities.  One school district was recently ordered to pay $7 million to the family of a former high school football player who suffered a debilitating head injury in a game.  The suit alleged that the football staff failed to recognize and respond to concussion symptoms.“We didn’t know the danger” will be increasingly difficult to support as a defense in failure to warn brain trauma-derived tort litigation.

As concussion awareness and litigation have expanded, the focus on safety has increased as well.  The risk management obligations of major sports organizations — including their trainers, doctors and coaches — continue to elevate and are trickling down to every level of sports, right down to primary school playgrounds.  It remains to be seen how litigation will ultimately reshape sports at every level, but we can anticipate that the ramifications will be significant.

It’s not just lives at stake.  Sports organizations face potentially massive legacy exposures and ongoing concussion liability every day they continue to play.

For those in the business of insuring liabilities, brain trauma is an emerging latent exposure the likes of which the insurance industry has not seen in decades. Comparisons to the asbestos crisis are unavoidable.  In the case of asbestos, years of exposure to the hazard manifested itself only decades later.  The medical and scientific community had to play catch-up to establish effective protective protocols and the insurance industry was slow to react in providing solutions for the exposures.

In the case of head trauma, industry response has thus far been varied.  Some carriers are deploying comprehensive CTE or concussion-related exclusions on a case-by-case basis, depending on class, sport and individual risk management protocols.  Some carriers are wholly excluding concussion-related risks or providing warranties and sub-limits of coverage, attempting to ‘wall off’ legacy exposure.  Still others are not unlike the parent on the sideline, wondering whether they should keep playing the game at all.  Moving forward, I anticipate more insurers will migrate from occurrence to claims made coverage to mitigate tail exposure.

As an industry, we need to continue to invest in understanding the exposure, innovating to manage it and collaborating with municipalities, universities and professional sports leagues to manage and mitigate the risk.  As medical and technological advances enhance the ability to detect and prevent concussions, our ability to prudently underwrite it will be enhanced.  Data and science will fuel a much faster insurance industry response than we saw with asbestos liability, though these same advances will likely sharpen the ability to understand timing, origin and extent of injuries for litigation purposes as well.

One thing is certain: tackling this risk requires a major league commitment from our industry.  As we saw in the NFL this season, managing concussion risk is a work in progress.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

2018 Risk All Stars

Stop Mitigating Risk. Start Conquering It Like These 2018 Risk All Stars

The concept of risk mastery and ownership, as displayed by the 2018 Risk All Stars, includes not simply seeking to control outcomes but taking full responsibility for them.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 3 min read

People talk a lot about how risk managers can get a seat at the table. The discussion implies that the risk manager is an outsider, striving to get the ear or the attention of an insider, the CEO or CFO.


But there are risk managers who go about things in a different way. And the 2018 Risk All Stars are prime examples of that.

These risk managers put in gear their passion, creativity and perseverance to become masters of a situation, pushing aside any notion that they are anything other than key players.

Goodyear’s Craig Melnick had only been with the global tire maker a few months when Hurricane Harvey dumped a record amount of rainfall on Houston.

Brilliant communication between Melnick and his new teammates gave him timely and valuable updates on the condition of manufacturing locations. Melnick remained in Akron, mastering the situation by moving inventory out of the storm’s path and making sure remediation crews were lined up ahead of time to give Goodyear its best leg up once the storm passed and the flood waters receded.

Goodyear’s resiliency in the face of the storm gave it credibility when it went to the insurance markets later that year for renewals. And here is where we hear a key phrase, produced by Kevin Garvey, one of Goodyear’s brokers at Aon.

“The markets always appreciate a risk manager who demonstrates ownership,” Garvey said, in what may be something of an understatement.

These risk managers put in gear their passion, creativity and perseverance to become masters of a situation, pushing aside any notion that they are anything other than key players.

Dianne Howard, a 2018 Risk All Star and the director of benefits and risk management for the Palm Beach County School District, achieved ownership of $50 million in property storm exposures for the district.

With FEMA saying it wouldn’t pay again for district storm losses it had already paid for, Howard went to the London markets and was successful in getting coverage. She also hammered out a deal in London that would partially reimburse the district if it suffered a mass shooting and needed to demolish a building, like what happened at Sandy Hook in Connecticut.

2018 Risk All Star Jim Cunningham was well-versed enough to know what traditional risk management theories would say when hospitality workers were suffering too many kitchen cuts. “Put a cut-prevention plan in place,” is the traditional wisdom.

But Cunningham, the vice president of risk management for the gaming company Pinnacle Entertainment, wasn’t satisfied with what looked to him like a Band-Aid approach.


Instead, he used predictive analytics, depending on his own team to assemble company-specific data, to determine which safety measures should be used company wide. The result? Claims frequency at the company dropped 60 percent in the first year of his program.

Alumine Bellone, a 2018 Risk All Star and the vice president of risk management for Ardent Health Services, faced an overwhelming task: Create a uniform risk management program when her hospital group grew from 14 hospitals in three states to 31 hospitals in seven.

Bellone owned the situation by visiting each facility right before the acquisition and again right after, to make sure each caregiving population was ready to integrate into a standardized risk management system.

After consolidating insurance policies, Bellone achieved $893,000 in synergies.

In each of these cases, and in more on the following pages, we see examples of risk managers who weren’t just knocking on the door; they were owning the room. &


Risk All Stars stand out from their peers by overcoming challenges through exceptional problem solving, creativity, clarity of vision and passion.

See the complete list of 2018 Risk All Stars.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]