By Iliana Limón, Orlando Sentinel
9:05 PM EDT, June 28, 2011
Three UCF players testified coach George O'Leary never ordered water and athletic trainers be removed from Ereck Plancher's final workout.
Plancher collapsed and died following offseason conditioning drills at the UCF football complex on March 18, 2008.
Former UCF captain Rocky Ross and current UCF running back Ronnie Weaver stated during the 12th day of the Plancher wrongful death trial water was available at all times during the workout.
Weaver, the first witness called Tuesday as the UCF Athletics Association began presenting its defense, testified he drank from a water bottle handed to him by an athletic trainer during Plancher's final workout.
"Yes there was both waters and trainers in the indoor the entire time we were in there," Weaver said.
Former UCF wide receiver Jamar Newsome, a starter on the 2010 team, stated O'Leary ordered the water and trainers be moved off the field and placed on a sideline behind the players while they went through an obstacle course. Newsome stated O'Leary sometimes ordered the trainers and water be moved off the field so that the players would not be lackadaisical and attempt to drink water between their first and second trips through the obstacle course.
When UCF wide receivers coach David Kelly was asked whether anyone ordered water and athletic trainers be removed from the fieldhouse, he responded, "Absolutely not."
The testimony by the players and Kelly conflicts with statements made by former UCF players Brian Watters, Anthony Davis and Cody Minnich, who testified O'Leary ordered athletic trainers and water be removed from the indoor practice facility on the day Plancher died.
O'Leary testified last week he never ordered the water and trainers be removed.
Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans previously ruled the Plancher family would have to prove to a jury O'Leary ordered the water and athletic trainers be removed from the fieldhouse to earn punitive damages.
Before the jury considers punitive damages, it is scheduled to decide later this week whether UCFAA is guilty of negligence for failing to do everything possible save Plancher's life.
Orange County medical examiner Joshua Stephany testified last week Plancher died from complications of sickle cell trait. He stated under extreme stress, red blood cells can become warped and quickly break down the body's key organs. Plancher family expert Dr. Randy Eichner told the jury UCFAA was "below the standard of care" on the day the football player, and Plancher could have been saved if he had been pulled from the workout when he first showed signs of distress. Eichner stated sickle cell trait can be triggered two minutes after the start of a workout.
UCFAA attorneys contend Plancher died from an undiagnosed heart condition and no one was responsible for his death.
Weaver, Ross, Newsome and former player Darin Baldwin – who was not asked about water or athletic trainers -- stated Plancher showed varied signs of fatigue during the workout. They stated they thought he was just tired, but they agreed during cross examination it was unusual for Plancher to finish sprints behind offensive linemen.
Kelly stated he never saw Plancher show any signs of distress during the offseason conditioning drills, but he added that he was supervising select portions of the conditioning drills and was not monitoring Plancher closely during the entire workout.
Weaver, Newsome and Ross were asked numerous questions about the water and athletic trainers being present in the fieldhouse.
When Weaver was asked how he knew athletic trainers and water were present, he responded, "One of the trainers gave me the water. "
Later during his testimony, Weaver was asked whether O'Leary ever ordered the athletic trainers and water be removed.
"Water and trainers are always available in the indoor and any training that we do at all times," Weaver said. "There are water fountains at the back of the indoor and they're on at all times.The water crates are there at all times, and they're always filled."
When he was asked the same question, Ross responded, "no one ever said that."
Ross, who was a wide receiver and is now a UCF football graduate assistant, was asked if O'Leary ever ordered the athletic trainers and water be removed. Ross responded, "never." Ross was then asked how sure he was it never happened, Ross responded, "100 percent."
During cross examination by Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid, asked Weaver whether O'Leary controlled his scholarship and determined how much playing time he will get during his upcoming senior season. Weaver responded, "yes."
Yerrid highlighted that Ross is currently working for O'Leary and was recruited by the coach.
When Ross was asked if he called players who spoke outside the team's "circle" to media outlets about Plancher's final workout "cowards," Ross responded, "Yes, because they lied."
When Ross was asked to elaborate on why he called them cowards, he responded, "You use national television and media as a way to bend the truth about what went on. You're a coward in my mindYou can't say it to your teammates. You're a coward, you're a liar."
During redirect cross examination, Ross was asked if Watters – who was a friend of his while they both played at UCF -- was a coward. Ross said he was referring to players who have not testified, spoke to ESPN and left the program.
"When I heard through the media the things that he said, it upset me," Ross said of Watters' testimony about Plancher's final workout. "It was shocking that he said that. I don't know why Brian Watters would come out and say things that he did."Weaver began his testimony by telling the jury about the offseason conditioning drills the team did in 2007 and 2008 leading up to Plancher's final workout. He told the jury he was in "tip top shape" before leaving for spring break in March 2008.
He demonstrated some conditioning drills for the jurors. Weaver stated that he worked out during the nine day spring break leading up to the March 18, 2008, conditioning drills, but he did not strictly follow the conditioning instructions he was by the UCF coaches.
He then told the jury about Plancher's last workout. He said the team lifted weights for about an hour to an hour and 40 minutes, then went to the locker room for four to five minutes to change into cleats. He said players could catch their breath, then moved quickly to the fieldhouse for conditioning drills. Weaver testified the drills lasted about 25 minutes.
Weaver told the jury the team did three agility stations, then had a brief break while coaches set up an obstacle course. He testified the team had never done the obstacle course before but the team had done all the drills included in the course.
He stated he went through the obstacle course and drank water before going through it a second time. He said the team had another brief break while coaches removed he obstacle course and the team lined up for sideline-to-sideline sprints.
Weaver stated he noticed Plancher appear to trip out of the corner of his eye. He stated Plancher finished about 10 yards behind offensive line, which he agreed during cross examination was unusual. Weaver said he could not say for sure whether Plancher fell all the way to the ground.
O'Leary and at least four other witnesses have testified he called the team in for a huddle, then sent them back to the sideline to run sprints because quarterback Nate Tice dropped his head and wasn't looking at the head coach. The team never actually ran the second sprint. Weaver said he could not recall that portion of the workout.
Weaver testified the first time he really noticed Plancher was in distress was during jumping jacks. He said Plancher looked weak and wasn't doing them properly. When Plancher didn't walk off the field with his teammates, Weaver said he was among the players who helped him off the field. He said shortly after they put his arm over their shoulders, Plancher completely collapsed and a total of four players had to help carry him off the field.
Weaver said assistant athletic trainer Robert Jackson ran toward Plancher within 20 seconds from the time the player collapsed and began treating Plancher.
Ross, Weaver and Newsome said O'Leary called a team meeting later in the afternoon to announce Plancher had died.
"Everyone in there, we were all crying," Ross stated. "Everyone. There wasn't a dry eye in there."
Weaver said O'Leary reminded the players of the team policy not to speak to the media. Weaver said O'Leary stated he had not had a chance to speak with Plancher's parents and didn't want them to hear different accounts of what had happened from others.
Ross provided a similar account of the workout, saying he thought Plancher stumbled during the sideline-to-sideline sprint and the first time he noticed Plancher having trouble was during the jumping jacks at the end of the workout.
Contrary to testimony from former UCF wide receivers Brian Watters and Anthony Davis, Ross and Newsome said they never saw anyone helping Plancher complete the obstacle course. Kelly and former UCF player Darin Baldwin, whose testimony was read to the jury later in the day, stated they never saw anyone help Plancher through the obstacle course. Kelly and Ross stated it was not possible for a player to be assisted through the drill without coaches noticing and calling for help.
During cross examination, Ross and Weaver agreed they never saw Plancher during the obstacle course. Ross was a wide receiver in the same group as Plancher, but he was running through it ahead of Plancher. However, Ross stated it would have been called to the players' attention and everyone would have known if a player had to help Plancher complete the obstacle course.
Ross and Weaver stated during cross examination whether their teammates were tired during the workout and were breathing hard. They said, "yes." Ross confirmed he saw players throwing up during the drills.
Weaver and Ross said they the tough workout was part of their development as college football players.
Weaver was asked during cross examination whether he trusted athletic trainers to take care of him. He responded that he did.
Near the end of Weavers' redirect testimony, UCFAA attorney Kevin Taylor asked Weaver whether he had ever been tested for sickle cell trait.
The judge interrupted the questioning and ordered the jury out of the courtroom. He then admonished Taylor for violating his pretrial ruling instructing him not to reference whether any players had been tested for sickle cell trait. Evans told Taylor – an attorney licensed in Colorado allowed to represent UCFAA as a guest of the court -- if he violated the pretrial ruling again, his privileges would be revoked.
Taylor stated Weaver had not tested positive for the trait and felt comfortable around the athletic trainers because they always took care of him, so Taylor felt it was relevant.
Evans stated the information was restricted because UCFAA did not provide Plancher family attorneys information about which players on the team tested positive for sickle cell trait leading up to the trial, citing federal privacy laws. Evans stated they could not withhold the information before the trial, then use it against the Plancher attorneys during the trial.
When the jury returned, Evans instructed them to disregard any reference to whether other players were tested for sickle cell trait.
Before the jury was released at the end of the day, the attorneys read highlights of Baldwin's testimony to the jury. Baldwin stated he saw Jackson assisting Plancher once during the workout and immediately after the conditioning drills when Plancher collapsed.
His testimony contradicts seven players who testified they never saw an athletic trainer assisting Plancher until his teammates were carrying him out of the fieldhouse after the workout.
Before the jury entered the courtroom, Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans denied a UCFAA motion to dismiss negligence claims filed by the Plancher family.
UCFAA attorneys argued Tuesday morning the Plancher family attorneys failed to prove UCFAA was negligent and responsible for the football player's wrongful death.
Evans stated he thought there was enough testimony to support arguments for both sides. He denied to decide the case, stating, "It's fodder for the jury."
The judge released the jury for the day shortly before 5 p.m.
He announced the Plancher family attorneys have one hour and 22 seconds remaining for questioning of witnesses, objections and their closing argument. UCFAA attorneys have seven hours and 49 minutes for questioning of witnesses, objections and their closing argument.
Both sides are facing significant time crunch, but Evans reminded them they promised the jury the trial would be completed within three weeks.
Evans previously stated he would be willing to consider amending the time rules if the attorneys could make a compelling case the current clock violated their clients' rights to due process.
The jury is scheduled to begin deliberation at noon Thursday. If they find UCFAA guilty of negligence, the judge stated he expected the attorneys to present arguments before the jury Friday debating whether UCFAA is guilty of gross negligence.
Check back for live updates throughout the Plancher trial. Contact Iliana Limón at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6353.
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