Jurors heard two vastly different explanations of what caused former UCF football player Ereck Plancher's death.
Plancher, a 19-year-old football player, collapsed and died following a March 18, 2008 offseason conditioning workout supervised by UCF coach George O'Leary and his staff.
His parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the UCF Athletics Association, alleging its employees failed to treat Ereck Plancher for complications from sickle cell trait that an Orange County autopsy report stated contributed to his death.
"This case is about a tragic, but more importantly, an unnecessary death that occurred right here in Orlando, Florida, on March 18, 2008," Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid said during his opening statement.
UCF Athletics Association attorney Dan Shapiro stated during his opening statement that medical experts would testify Plancher's death was caused be a congenital heart condition that could not be detected before his death. Shapiro stated the condition known as fibromuscular dysplasia blocked at least 90 percent of the blood flow to Plancher's heart.
"The evidence will be that it was no one's fault," Shapiro said of Plancher's death.
Shapiro also told the jurors medical experts would testify complications from sickle cell trait is a benign condition that could not have caused Plancher's death.
Yerrid, who addressed the jurors first, told the group they would have to weigh the testimony of paid experts who determined Plancher died of a heart condition within the last two weeks against testimony of Orange County medical examiner Joshua D. Stephany, who was not paid by either side to provide his opinion. Yerrid stated Stephany determined three years ago Plancher died of complications from sickle cell trait.
Shapiro told jurors Stephany's conclusions were influenced by emails from a national advocate for research of sickle cell trait related deaths.
While Shapiro described Plancher's final workout as a sequence of routine offseason drills, Yerrid called it a grueling workout.
Yerrid told jurors during his opening statement they would hear testimony O'Leary ordered water and athletic trainers be removed from the indoor practice facility during a critical stretch of Ereck Plancher's final workout when he showed signs of distress.
Yerrid told the jury Robert Jackson, the sole athletic trainer present for Plancher's last workout, didn't know the player had sickle cell trait. Yerrid said the jury would learn UCFAA employees did not follow guidelines for treating athletes who have tested with sickle cell trait while treating Plancher.
Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans and the attorneys selected six a jury of six people and two alternates after three days of questioning a pool of 58 candidates. The final portion of jury selection was especially contentious, with Evans denying UCFAA attorney Kevin Taylor's attempt to strike two jurors because the judge did not think Taylor presented race neutral objections. Yerrid lobbied to keep the two black women on the jury because he said his clients, who are black, deserved to be evaluated by a fair racial representation of their community.
UCFAA renewed its objections to the two jurors so that it could properly appeal the judge's jury selection decisions. The two women Taylor tried to strike were sworn in as members of the six-person jury.
The attorneys continued to spar, frequently interrupting each other with objections. Evans warned the attorneys he would not tolerate interruptions that weren't based on sound legal arguments.
Within the first five minutes of Yerrid's opening statement, the UCFAA attorneys objected twice and the judge had to have a brief discussion away from the jury with the attorneys.
Yerrid showed the jury a pictures of Ereck Plancher playing football, posing with family members, posing with friends. He also showed images of Plancher's extensive academic awards. Yerrid said no one in the courtroom on either side would have a bad thing to say about Plancher, who was an honor student and scholarship athlete.
He said he some of Plancher's teammates would tell the jury during the trial, "He's the type of person I aspired to be."
Yerrid showed pictures of the UCF football weight room and the indoor practice facility, highlighting the scene of Plancher's final workout.
Yerrid noted former UCF quarterback Nate Tice was among the players present at the workout whose video testimony would be played during the trial. While outlining Tice's close personal relationship with O'Leary, Yerrid said, "Coach O'Leary for five or six days was coach of the Notre Dame football team."
UCFAA attorneys immediately objected. Shapiro stated it violated the judge's order about O'Leary's background.
Evans previously ruled the Plancher family attorneys could not tell the jury about O'Leary's decision to resign from the Notre Dame football team after lying about his education and athletic experience.
The judge overruled the objection, stating Yerrid wasn't specific enough to violate the previous order.
Yerrid continued his opening statement, saying O'Leary was hired by Mike Tice, father of Nate Tice, to be an assistant coach on the Minnesota Vikings staff. The attorney said Nate Tice had known O'Leary since he was in the third grade. Yerrid said the jury would get a chance to decide whether Tice and many other players present during Plancher's final workout were credible and should note Tice's background.
Yerrid reiterated the evidence would show the athletic trainers were not present and the water was removed when Plancher was showing signs of distress. He added no one intervened when Plancher was suffering symptoms related to sickle cell trait.
Yerrid told the jury about the National Athletic Trainers' Association consensus statement, which offers guidelines for the supervision of athletes with sickle cell trait and recommends treatment if they have any difficulty during a workout. He said the recommendations include immediately stopping the workout, providing water and eventually administering high-flow oxygen.
"None of that was ever done," Yerrid said. "In fact, the evidence is going to be that nothing was done with Ereck Plancher during the time he was distressed."
Yerrid said the evidence will show Plancher did not know he tested positive for sickle cell trait. The attorney also told the jury Plancher's first UCF Athletic Association sickle cell test results were never placed in his medical file maintained by the athletic trainers supervising the football team.
He suggested the UCFAA attorneys might raise the point that Gisele Plancher learned that her youngest son, Edwin, tested positive for sickle cell trait and could have told her son about the condition.
Yerrid stated, "Let them make that argument. The Planchers aren't on trial here."
He said when Vander Heiden was deposed, she was asked whether she told Ereck Plancher he had sickle cell trait. Yerrid quoted Vander Heiden's deposition, during which she stated, "I can't remember specifically doing that, but that would be my custom and practice." Yerrid noted she never wrote down she spoke with Plancher.
Yerrid said players would state Plancher's final workout was more strenuous than initially described by UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble and O'Leary. Yerrid said it would be clear Jackson, the sole athletic trainer present for the last workout, did not assist Plancher until he was being carried out of the indoor facility by his teammates.
Yerrid said when Jackson first called Vander Heiden for help, the message she received was that Jackson needed help transporting an athlete suffering from dehydration to the training room.
"There was no mention of sickle cell trait," Yerrid said.
UCFAA attorneys objected at least five times, stating Yerrid's statements veered from presentation of evidence that would be introduced during the trial into arguing key facts of the case. Yerrid asked for a five minute break to regroup before presenting the final 10 minutes of his opening statement.
When he resumed his opening statement, Yerrid told the jury the evidence will show Plancher was gasping, wobbling and falling. Yerrid said O'Leary responded to Plancher's difficulty completing drills with "a profanity-laced tirade."
After Yerrid completed his opening statement, the judge asked the jury to be patient and weigh the UCF Athletics Association opening statement with the same weight despite their fatigue.
Shapiro began his statement on behalf of UCFAA at 5:03 p.m.
He told the jury their task would be to consider what caused a seemingly healthy young athlete's death.
Shapiro said Plancher's death was caused by a heart condition and stressed no one was negligent in Plancher's death.
He stated that UCFAA will demonstrate the workout was typical for offseason conditioning drills. Shapiro also stated water and athletic trainers were present for Plancher's final workout.
Shapiro said evidence in the case would show there is no direct evidence sickle cell trait causes sudden death.
He told the jury Dr. Randy Eichner, who previously worked as a football team doctor at the University of Oklahoma, corresponded by email with Stephany about sickle cell trait causing sudden death in athletes and influenced the medical examiner's autopsy report. Shapiro stated Eichner is scheduled to testify as witness for the Plancher family attorneys.
Yerrid objected to the description of Eichner, arguing Shapiro was trying to discredit the witness before he had an opportunity to be questioned in court. The judge instructed Shapiro to stop discussing the emails between Stephany and Eichner and move on with his opening statement.
Shapiro told the jury the medical examiner "ignored the predominant cause of sudden death athletes," which he said are heart conditions.
The UCFAA attorney then showed the jury a series of slides projected on a screen outlining the exercises the team did during Plancher's last workout.
Shapiro reiterated the evidence will show there was water available at the workout and the trainers were never ordered out of the fieldhouse. He told the jury former UCF football player Anthony Davis will testify O'Leary ordered the trainers and water out of the fieldhouse. Shapiro said Davis testified Jamar Newsome helped carry Plancher through the obstacle course, but Newsome will testify he never carried Plancher. Shapiro said Davis will testify he met Gisele Plancher at UCF, but Gisele Plancher said during her deposition she never visited UCF.
Shapiro suggested a 79 players, the head coach and position coaches disputed Davis' account.
Yerrid objected and the Evans told the jury not to disregard the number of players mentioned. While UCFAA interviewed all players at Ereck Plancher's final workout, they did not provide those statements to the Plancher family attorneys and the Plancher legal team never had the opportunity to depose every player present at the practice. As a result, they dispute Shapiro's statement.
Evans told the jury to disregard the number of players mentioned and Shapiro amended his statement, indicating no member of the team supported Davis' version of the events.
Shapiro stated the evidence would show Plancher tripped but got back on his own during the workout. Shapiro said the first time Plancher showed signs of distress was during the final huddle and he was immediately approached by Jackson, the sole certified athletic trainer present at the indoor practice facility.
Yerrid raised another objection and Shapiro's opening statement was interrupted for a third time by a discussion with the judge.
Shapiro resumed his opening statement, telling the jurors that Jackson and eventually Vander Heiden checked Plancher's vital signs and performed CPR when his condition quickly deteriorated.
He told the jury experts would testify the argument that sickle cell trait contributed to Plancher's death was not medically sound. Shapiro told the jurors the medical community states using evidence found after death to prove an event before death is not valid.
However, Shapiro said the program has to comply with NCAA guidelines. He stated the NCAA has issued recommendations for treating athletes with sickle cell trait, but they are the same guidelines for any athlete without sickle cell trait.
Yerrid objected to Shapiro's presentation of the NCAA sickle cell trait recommendations, stating he should should the jury the full statement rather than excerpt. The judge overruled Yerrid's objection.
Shapiro told the jury despite the Plancher family's argument, Ereck Plancher was informed he had sickle cell trait.
Before the opening statements began, Evans read instructions to the jury and provided them with a summary of the dispute. The judge explained a long list of trial rules, noting the burden of proof is on the Plancher family attorneys, the requirements to prove negligence and the requirements to prove gross negligence.
UCF Athletics Association attorneys reiterated objections to the language of the jury instructions. The judge denied those motions and UCFAA has the option to appeal his decision.
On Wednesday morning, Evans urged the attorneys to quickly wrap up their questioning of the jury. The trial is scheduled to run three weeks and Evans said he was eager to keep it on schedule.
Evans warned the UCFAA attorneys who were not licensed in the state of Florida and were allowed to argue on behalf of the athletics department thanks to the judge's instruction that he would remove them if they continued to slow down process.
Before the potential jurors entered the courtroom Wednesday morning, Taylor filed a motion to strike the jury pool and seek a new group of potential jurors because Yerrid used the term reparations during his questioning of the jury. Taylor added that Yerrid has repeatedly stressed the racial composition of the jury, injecting racial overtones to the proceedings.
Yerrid responded that the primary legal definition of reparations is compensatory damages, which are a component of the civil lawsuit.
The judge denied the motion, stating Yerrid would not be doing his job if he did not make sure all black potential jurors were not removed from the jury pool because his clients are black. He said he didn't think Yerrid was questioning the composition of the entire jury pool.
Taylor then requested a mistrial because of Yerrid's comments in front of the jury and Evans denied that motion.
Finally, Taylor requested a special instruction to the jury about the topic. The judge said he would make sure the instructions on potential damages are clear.
Check back for live updates when the trial resumes Thursday morning. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6353. Read By Iliana Limón's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/knightsnotepad.