They know he would have shrugged off the compliments, but Ereck Plancher's friends, family and coaches called him perfect.
He was the perfect student, the perfect big brother, the perfect teammate. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral.
Plancher, a 19-year-old wide receiver from Naples, collapsed and died on March 18, 2008, following an offseason conditioning workout on the UCF campus supervised by head football coach George O'Leary and his staff.
Those are about the only facts attorneys representing UCF and the Plancher family can agree on in the ongoing wrongful death lawsuit. More than three years after Plancher's death, a civil trial is set to begin Monday morning with jury selection at the Orange County Courthouse.
An autopsy released in July 2008 determined Ereck Plancher had sickle cell trait, a condition that causes blood cells to warp and damage organs when the body is under extreme stress. The medical examiner determined Plancher's sickle cell trait was triggered and caused "vascular distress," contributing to his death.
Plancher's parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on March 12, 2009, against the UCF board of trustees and UCF Athletics Association alleging coaches and athletic trainers failed to properly treat Ereck Plancher for complications of sickle cell trait that contributed to his death.
Tampa attorney Dan Shapiro and Miami attorney Anne Sullivan, who both have extensive experience in civil litigation, are expected to be the primary speakers arguing on behalf of UCF. The university has at least four other attorneys from firms throughout the country contributing to its defense.
Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid, a nationally recognized litigator who represented the state of Florida in a landmark case against tobacco companies and secured a record $11.4 billion settlement, will be the primary speaker arguing on behalf of the Plancher family. Tampa attorneys J. D. Dowell, Jeff Murphy and David Dickey also represent the Planchers.
Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans, who is the third judge to preside over the case, has been ruling on key motions leading up to the trial since March 2010. Evans earned his law degree from Florida State in 1986. Before becoming a judge, he worked extensively as an attorney focused on international law. Evans, who is a Republican, joined the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in February 1995.
UCF attorneys argued last week Evans should have been disqualified because comments he made in open court May 27 about O'Leary indicated he could not preside over a fair and impartial trial. While ruling in favor of a UCF motion May 27, Evans told Plancher attorneys they could not rely solely on O'Leary's conflicting comments during a deposition to prove their point. Evans said, "I'll give you that Coach O'Leary doesn't seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer on this."
Evans apologized for his remark later during the May 27 hearing. He rejected UCF's request last week that he be disqualified from the case, calling it "legally insufficient." He also denied UCF's request to delay the trial until the Fifth District Court of Appeals reviewed its appeal that Evans should have been disqualified for his comments.
WHY IS IT GOING TO TRIAL?
The majority of civil cases are settled before trial, but UCF and Planchers attorneys have not reached a settlement.
Evans ruled in September the UCF Athletic Association, the school's athletic department that operates separately from the university, was not a state agency protected by Florida limits on the financial payouts in civil cases. As result, UCFAA could face unlimited damages. The decision cannot be appealed until a jury trial is completed. UCFAA has insurance policies worth $21 million, but the companies are unlikely pay those claims until every appeal opportunity is exhausted.
Evans also ruled in March that the Plancher family can seek additional punitive damages if it can prove to a jury O'Leary did not make water or athletic trainers available to assist players during a critical stretch of Plancher's final workout.
Both sets of attorneys have said they are confident in the arguments they will present to the jury and expect a ruling in their favor. The trial is expected to last three weeks.
O'Leary, UCF athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden, former UCF athletic trainer Robert Jackson, UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble, members of the 2008 UCF football team and medical experts are among the long list of witnesses expected to testify during the trial.
THE PLANCHERS' PRIMARY ARGUMENTS
The Plancher attorneys contend Ereck Plancher was not aware he had sickle cell trait. They argue UCF officials supervising the workout knew Plancher had sickle cell trait and failed to treat him properly for the condition, instead admonishing him for failing to perform well. They also argue O'Leary ordered athletic trainers to remove water and leave the indoor practice facility during a critical portion of the workout when Plancher was showing signs of distress.
UCF'S PRIMARY ARGUMENTS
UCF's attorneys insists the staff did everything possible to save Plancher's life. They dispute the Plancher family attorneys' account of workout, arguing water and athletic trainers were present at all times. UCF attorneys are expected to question the medical research behind sickle cell trait. They also contend Plancher knew he tested positive for sickle cell trait and was aware of the potential consequences of continuing with the workout if he was under distress.
THE POTENTIAL IMPACT
The judge has ruled against a variety of pretrial motions filed by both sets of attorneys, giving them plenty of room to file appeals following a jury verdict. UCF could eventually be forced to pay a significant settlement if the school loses the case and its potential appeals. The Plancher family could walk away without financial compensation if it loses the case and its potential appeals.
Will this case have ramifications beyond UCF? It could, but it's difficult to say at this point whether people will view this as an isolated case involving the specific treatment of Plancher or whether it will be viewed as part of a bigger challenge treating college athletes who have sickle cell trait. Plancher is one of 10 football players whose deaths have been tied to sickle cell trait since 2000. It also is unclear whether a potential judgment against UCFAA for an unlimited amount of money could impact the way other athletic departments in the state of Florida are organized in the future.
email@example.com or 407-650-6353. Read Iliana Limón's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/knightsnotepad.