Three UCF football team physicians testified Tuesday they did not know Ereck Plancher tested positive for sickle cell trait and never counseled him about the condition.
Orange County medical examiner Joshua D. Stephany also told the jury on day seven of the Plancher wrongful death trial his research determined the UCF football player's death was caused by complications from sickle cell trait. He said it is a genetic disorder that can cause red blood cells to break down organs when the body is under extreme stress.
UCF Athletics Association attorneys have argued Stephany's autopsy report was incorrect and an undiagnosed heart condition caused Plancher's death. They are scheduled to cross examine Stephany Wednesday morning, then UCF coach George O'Leary is expected to testify. O'Leary and his staff supervised Plancher's final workout March 18, 2008. Plancher died shortly after completing the offseason conditioning drills.
Dr. Dan Monet, Dr. Douglas Meuser and Dr. Kenneth Krumins, who all assist the UCF football team on a volunteer basis, testified athletic trainers are responsible for informing athletes about the trait.
Plancher family attorneys contend the football player was never told he tested positive for sickle cell trait, while UCFAA attorneys argue head athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden informed him he had the trait. There is no written record he was informed of the positive test results. Vander Heiden may be called to testify Wednesday.
Meuser and Krumins said they did not recall having any contact with Plancher. Monet, the football team's head clinical physician, testified he did Plancher's physical and signed a prescription for a sickle cell trait blood screening. The doctor said he never saw the results of Plancher's blood test, which he said are typically sent directly to the athletic trainers.
Monet was asked whether Plancher was entitled to know he tested positive for sickle cell trait and Monet responded yes.
"From my training, I would say if you have a positive sickle cell, it's something that needs to be addressed with the player," he said.
He recalled speaking with Vander Heiden shortly after Plancher's death. Monet said the conversation took place in the UCF football training room before the autopsy report was released.
"I was there for training room rounds, and I just wanted to find out from her, `What do you think went on?'" Monet said. "That's when she told me he had a positive sickle cell [trait test]."
Monet said it was important for athletic trainers to know an athlete has sickle cell trait so that preventative measures, including keeping an athlete hydrated, could be taken if there are problems during the workout. He said UCF had "some of the best trainers," so he thought all the athletic trainers knew Plancher had sickle cell trait.
Plancher family attorneys have told the jury Robert Jackson, the sole athletic trainer at Plancher's last workout, did not know the football player tested positive for the trait.
Two former UCF players at Plancher's final workout on March 18, 2008, told the jury the players had no access to water. Kinesiology professor Douglas Casa, a Plancher family expert witness who reviewed more than 20 depositions related to the case, testified he thought water was available but the workout was not conducive to the players stopping to drink the water.
UCFAA attorneys have argued water was available
The Plancher family attorneys played highlights of videotaped testimony by Meuser, who was one of the UCF football team's volunteer physicians.
Meuser testified he never reviewed the reason UCF's policy of testing athletes for sickle cell trait.
He told the jury he never talked with Plancher about testing positive for sickle cell trait, but he thinks it is reasonable for all athletes who test positive for the trait to be informed of the results.
Meuser reiterated Monet's statements about to properly treat an athlete who has sickle cell trait, including gradually increasing the intensity of their workouts and making sure they were properly hydrated.
When he was asked whether an athletic trainer should intervene if an athlete with sickle cell trait shows signs of distress, Meuser responded, "early recognition of an athlete in distress is part and parcel of what an athletic trainer should be doing."
During cross examination, Meuser agreed he was not suggesting to the jury that Plancher was never informed he tested positive for sickle cell trait and was never counseled about the condition. He said he never spoke with Plancher.
Meuser also agreed the National Athletic Trainers' Association consensus statement indicates there is no evidence based proof that screening for sickle cell test can save lives.
Plancher family attorneys also read the jury highlights of Krumins' deposition. Krumins is one of UCF's head team physician and he specializes in orthopedic care.
When he was asked whether he knew Plancher tested positive for sickle cell trait, Krumins responded,
"I'm not aware of that at all and it's outside of my expertise."
Stephany, the medical examiner, told the jury Plancher's death was caused by "dysrhythmia due to acute exertional rhabdomyolysis with sickle cell trait."
He told the jury Plancher's sickle cell trait caused sickling, or malformation, of red blood cells. Stephany said the cells become flattened and are shaped like sickles. He said the cells become sticky and do not move easily through capillaries. Stephany said "sickle cell trait can become very harmful."
UCF Athletics Association attorneys have argued Stephany's conclusion was incorrect, and Plancher's death was caused by an undiagnosed heart condition. They contend the jury should find no one was negligent for the 19-year-old's death following an offseason UCF football workout.
Stephany said he considered whether Plancher's death was caused by a heart problem, but the medical examiner said Plancher died an hour after he first showed signs of distress and had a weak pulse for much of that time. Stephany said that would not be consistent with a "sudden instantaneous cardiac event."
The medical examiner said he was aware Dr. Saroja Bharati recommended further study of Plancher's cardiac conduction system, but Stephany said it was a last case resort for medical examiners who cannot find a cause of death. He said he did not believe it was necessary to complete Plancher's autopsy report.
Stephany said it was not uncommon for the family of the deceased person he was studying and medical professionals to contact him about the cause of a person's death.
Dr. Randy Eichner, who previously worked as the team doctor at the University of Oklahoma and has since retired, has done extensive research of sickle cell trait causing sudden death in athletes. Eichner corresponded with Stephany about sickle cell trait before the medical examiner completed his autopsy report, but Stephany said it had no impact on his findings.
Stephany told the jury about the process he used to complete an autopsy report and determine cause of death. He stated, "when issues come up in the state of Florida, only the medical examiner can certify cause and manner of death."
UCFAA attorneys have suggested the medical examiner failed to properly study the cardiac conduction system, but Stephany told the jury he completed all tests necessary to determine Plancher's cause of death.
Stephany told the jury he took small pieces of Plancher's vital organs and studied them under a microscope. He showed the jury a series of the images, highlighting areas where cells were misshapen due to sickling and were clumped together.
"The kidney showed majority sickled red blood cells," Stephany said. He also showed images of sickled cells that distended the spleen and lungs.
While UCFAA informed the medical examiner Plancher tested positive for sickle cell trait before his death, Stephany said he tested Plancher for the trait on March 19, 2008, and confirmed he had the trait. Stephany told the jury he did a number of other tests. He said the results indicated Plancher had not used drugs.
Gisele Plancher, Ereck Plancher's mother, left the courtroom before Stephany began to extensively discuss her son's autopsy.
Before jury entered the courtroom, attorney spent more than an hour arguing over witnesses scheduled to be called Tuesday.
UCFAA attorneys contend they were not properly notified which segments of video recorded depositions Plancher family attorneys planned to play in court. UCFAA attorney Dan Shapiro said his team did not receive notice about segments of the video to be played in court until either 11 p.m. Monday or 1 a.m. Tuesday.
Plancher family attorneys countered they gave proper notice.
"This does not lend itself to an orderly processing of this case," Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans said.
He told the attorneys he would help them get them on track Tuesday morning, but he expected the attorneys to exchange information about witnesses for the remainder of the trial instead of forcing him to deal with disputes each morning.
"With any future videos you're going to be showing, you guys are going to work this out ahead of time," Evans said. "If it's not agreed, I'm going to pick who I think is responsible and I'm going to sanction them. You won't like the sanctions. I don't know what it will be. It may be walking on the road picking up the trash."
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