The family of Ereck Plancher has dropped its wrongful death lawsuit against the UCF board of trustees, opting to solely continue its legal action against the UCF Athletics Association.
Before jury selection began in the Plancher-UCF civil trial Monday morning at the Orange County Courthouse, Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid told the judge he was withdrawing the claim against the UCF board of trustees.
The UCF Athletics Association operates the Knights' sports programs. Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans previously ruled UCFAA is a private entity not protected by Florida laws capping potential payouts beyond $200,000 without approval from the state agency. As a result, UCFAA could face unlimited damages in the case.
Attorney Dan Shapiro reiterated UCFAA plans to appeal the judge's ruling on its status as a private entity following the completion of the jury trial.
The UCF board of trustees' attorneys did not object to the motion, adding they would submit a bill to the Planchers for their trial costs within 10 days.Evans approved the request.
Plancher, a 19-year-old football player, collapsed and died following a March 18, 2008 workout supervised by UCF coach George O'Leary and his staff.
An autopsy released in July 2008 stated Plancher had sickle cell trait, a condition that causes blood cells to warp and attack 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.
His parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the UCF board of trustees and UCF Athletic Association in March 2009, arguing UCF staff members failed to properly treat Ereck Plancher for complications of sickle cell trait that contributed to his death. Plancher's parents are expected to attend the entire trial.
UCF called Plancher's death a tragedy and insists its staff did everything possible to save his life.
The civil lawsuit began Monday more than three years after Plancher's death. The trial is expected to last three weeks.
Evans told the first jury pool in the morning and the second jury pool interviewed following a lunch break about the basic details of the case.
He read a long list of potential witnesses in the case, including 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.
The judge asked jurors whether they had strong ties to UCF, knew any of the witnesses personally, were familiar with details of the case that hindered them from providing a fair evaluation of the facts and whether serving on the jury for three weeks would cause an undue financial strain on their families.
Evans ultimately dismissed 18 potential jurors from the first pool and eight potential jurors from the second pool. It left the judge with 38 potential jurors before the attorneys had an opportunity to begin asking questions and using their strike potential jurors.
The first group of potential jurors were inadvertently sent home early by the courthouse staff. After questioning the second pool of potential jurors, Evans ended the proceedings for the day at about 3:30 p.m. Monday and planned to reconvene at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday with attorneys slated to continue questioning the potential jurors.
When the first group of potential jurors were seated in the courtroom Monday morning, the judge began by asking whether they knew anything about the case. He then began questioning jurors who raised their hands and indicated they were aware of the lawsuit.
The first juror was immediately dismissed because she is a UCF employee. She was the only person in the two groups of jurors employed by the university.
The second, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 20th, 22nd, 24th and 25th jurors questioned by the judge said they were aware of the case based on media reports, but they had not formed an opinion about it and were allowed to stay in the jury pool.
The third juror questioned by the judge said she formed a fixed opinion about the case based on media coverage, but she thought she could be open minded about the case. She was ultimately dismissed.
A sixth person said he followed it as well on sports talk radio and is the coach of a youth team, but he had not formed an opinion about the case. The judge ultimately dismissed him.
The 17th person questioned by the judge said she had heard about the case and had formed an opinion about the case. She said she did not feel she could be a neutral juror. Evans dismissed her.
The 19th woman questioned by the judge said she works for a company that has offices on the UCF campus, but she said she thought she could be a neutral juror. She was not dismissed.
The 20th woman questioned by the judge said she heard about the case through media reports and had slight leanings in favor of the defense, but she hoped she could be a neutral juror. She added that she is an attorney who has done defense work in civil cases. She added that she is the only lawyer in her firm and it would be financially difficult for her to serve. The judge kept her on the panel despite objections from the Plancher attorneys, but Evans reserved the right to reverse his decision.
The 21st person said he worked with a UCF football player on the witness list. He said he has heard a lot about the case and he thought it would impact his ability to be a neutral juror. Evans dismissed him.
One man in the second jury pool said he heard about the case on the news and read about in the Orlando Sentinel. He also said he heard about it on sports talk radio and formed a fixed opinion about the case. He told the judge he was surprised it wasn't settled before trial. He was dismissed.
Evans asked the jury pool whether any of them had lost a child. Two people in the morning session indicated they had lost a child but thought they could be neutral jurors. One woman said, "I think it would make my heart very tender, but I think I could be fair." She was not automatically dismissed. No one in the afternoon session said they had lost a child.
The judge asked the jury pool whether anyone would suffer a financial hardship by serving on the jury for three weeks.
Evans asked people with potential work conflicts what their employers would do if they were in the hospital for three weeks. Many of them said their employers would likely be understanding and they would be willing to do their civic duty.
One man said he had multiple sclerosis and would have a hard time serving in the jury. Another woman said she has a heart condition and is diabetic. She said she did not think she could serve on the jury because of her medical condition. Both were dismissed.
A woman said she knew one of O'Leary's daughters, who was her son's kindergarten teacher. She was dismissed from the jury.
One man said he was one of two employees at his business and serving for three weeks on the jury would cause an unavoidable financial hardship. He was dismissed.
One woman said she was a recent graduate of UCF who was planning a family trip, which included a baby shower for her sister-in-law. She was dismissed.
Another woman said her son is getting married and she promised she I would prepare a rehearsal dinner and serve it on Wednesday. She added that she is self employed and had a middle school son at home for the summer. She was dismissed.
Another woman said she works for a nursing home employee that is short staffed. She also said she is a single parent who won't be compensated for her service. Shapiro noted his firm did extensive work for the nursing home where she works. She was dismissed.
A woman said she had a job interview Wednesday and planned to fly to Ohio June 24 for two weeks. She was dismissed.
A man said he had an infant child who died, but he did not think it would impact his ability to be a neutral juror. He said he had a flight leaving Wednesday for business, but he could check with his employer to see if it could be moved. He also said he had sold his previous home and planned to use the next month to search for a new home. He said he would not be able to focus on the trial, and he was dismissed.
A woman said she works for the Orange County Library System would not be compensated by her employee for her jury duty and could not pay her bills without full pay for three weeks. She was dismissed.
A man said his employer only pays for one week of jury service and he would be unable to serve. He was dismissed.
A woman who said she would only get one week of pay for jury service. She was dismissed.
A woman said she purchased tickets for an expensive, non-refundable trip with her family in late June. The potential jurors laughed when she stressed it was non-refundable. She said she would be able to serve, but she would not be happy about it. The judge decided to leave her in the pool.
One potential juror said she is taking three weeks of engineering classes at Valencia Community College and she thought she was going to fail the class if she did not attend. The judge said by law the professor had to let her serve, but she said it would cause problems for her ongoing school obligations. Evans said the professors don't always honor the law and he hates to put pressure on students. She was not dismissed.
Another woman was dismissed because she would not be compensated by her employer and would lose her job teaching summer school.
As potential jurors began pointing scheduling conflicts, Evans told them, "Jury service is one of the things that separates us from the rest of the world. ... We bring our citizens in to decide important things."
Evans thanked the group for considering serving as jurors.
The judge asked the potential jurors not to discuss the case with their fellow jurors or friends or family members. He asked them to avoid media coverage of the case and Internet research.
Before the first wave of jurors arrived Monday morning, Evans said he tentatively planned for the trial to run from 8:30 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a 90-minute lunch break from noon to 1:30 p.m. The judge said he also planned to take hourly breaks to help enhance the jury's focus throughout the trial. Evans said he would be willing to adjust the schedule, but he there was no funding for court staff overtime and there was no room on his docket beyond the three weeks scheduled for the trial.
UCFAA filed a motion asking the judge to prevent both sides from speaking with the media during the trial. Evans ruled after the lunch break both sets of attorneys could speak with the media daily. He urged the attorneys to be careful to avoid speaking to the media in front of jurors.
"As a general rule, it's the United States of America and I generally don't like any sort of gag rules or restrictions on free speech," Evans said.
He added that he would revisit the issue if he felt any attorney statements to the media hampered the trial.
Check back again Tuesday morning for live trial updates. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6353. Read By Iliana Limón's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/knightsnotepad.