Court: Lawsuit against Stetson University in 2017 death of football player can move forward

A Florida appeals court has ruled that a wrongful death lawsuit against Stetson University following the 2017 death of football player Nick Blakely can move forward, overturning a lower court's ruling.

On August 28, 2017, Blakely took a break from practice because he was feeling dizzy and reported that his chest felt tight, according to the lawsuit. He collapsed on the sidelines and later died at the hospital from heart problems that, according to his family, were not properly diagnosed.

His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the University alleging negligence and breach of fiduciary duty after Blakely, according to the lawsuit, reported to a college athletic trainer in 2017 that he briefly experienced chest pain, which went undocumented, and that on the day he died, he told a trainer he was not feeling well and had chest congestion. The trainer believed Blakely had a cold and did not refer him to the student health clinic, according to the lawsuit.

A lower court previously ruled that the family was not able to sue the university because Blakely had signed a waiver to play football.

"Nick did show warning signs," said Blakely's mom, Michelle Wilson said, "Some signs of sudden cardiac arrest are dizziness, trouble breathing."

She believes Blakely could have reached the NFL: "We believe he would've gone all the way to the NFL because that's what he wanted to do."

Wilson argued that the languages in the releases were "insufficient to be enforceable as a matter of law." The appeals court agreed and reversed the lower court's decision. 

Stetson University argued that if the decision was overturned, it should also overturn the trial court's ruling allowing Blakely's family to seek punitive damages. The court agreed and overturned that ruling as well, noting that the family's argument did not meet the threshold to claim such damages.

In a statement, Stetson University said it was saddened by Blakely death and that it could not comment because the case was actively being litigated.

"Stetson University is involved in litigation and as such, cannot comment on the particulars of the case other than to say it is exploring all appellate options. Stetson was greatly saddened by Nick’s passing and offers its continuing thoughts and prayers to his family and friends," the University's statement said.

The case was remanded back to trial court.

In light of Blakely's death, his family created a foundation in his honor that donates automated external defibrillators to public parks and athletic facilities.

His family said it hopes that Blakely's story – and the recent news about Buffalo Bills' player Damar Hamlin's on-field collapse during a recent game – puts more focus on athletes' heart health.

"We take care of the head, what about the heart?" she said.