Florida justices allow lawsuit over Stetson University football player’s death

19-year-old sophomore died in August 2017

Nicholas Blakely (Copyright 2022 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday declined to take up an appeal by Stetson University in a case stemming from the death of a 19-year-old football player who collapsed on the sideline during a 2017 practice.

The decision effectively let stand a ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal that cleared the way for the family of Nick Blakely to pursue a lawsuit against Stetson. As is common, the Supreme Court did not detail its reasons.

Blakely, a sophomore accounting major from Lawrenceville, Ga., pulled himself out of a practice on Aug. 28, 2017, and complained to an assistant athletic trainer that he felt dizzy and his chest felt tight, according to the appeals-court ruling. On the sideline, the assistant athletic trainer took Blakely’s pulse, gave him water and had him stand in the shade.

After resting for about 45 minutes, Blakely collapsed. Stetson workers tried to revive Blakely, but he died at a hospital.

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Blakely’s family filed a lawsuit alleging negligence by the university. A Volusia County circuit judge in 2021 said Stetson was shielded by releases that Blakely signed to play football, but the 5th District Court of Appeal in December 2022 overturned that decision.

The appeals court said what is known as an exculpatory clause in the releases “did not expressly inform Blakely that by executing the document at issue, he would be contracting away his right to sue Stetson for Stetson’s own negligence.” Also, the ruling said other parts of the releases made the exculpatory clause “unclear and ambiguous.”

Stetson in March asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing that the 5th District Court of Appeal’s decision conflicted with rulings by other appellate courts in cases involving the Broward County School Board and the Monroe County School Board.

“In each case, the district courts interpreted contractual language that is not meaningfully distinguishable from the language of the releases that Nicholas (Blakely) signed to reach the conclusion that any claim for negligence against the school board for injuries arising out of the students’ participation in the schools’ athletic programs was barred,” Stetson’s attorneys wrote.

But attorneys for the Blakely family disputed that a conflict existed with the school-board cases, saying the “language in those releases is vastly different from the language in the Stetson releases.”

Also, the family’s attorneys alleged in a March brief that “Nick died due to the repeated negligent failures by Stetson to recognize the warning signs presented by Nick’s condition and to take the necessary actions to protect him at times while he was not engaged in the activity of playing, practicing, or participating in football. The negligence that caused Nick’s death began months before when he complained of chest pain and difficulty breathing to Stetson and Stetson did nothing in response to these complaints, just as they did on the morning of his death when he complained of concerning cardiac symptoms.”

The website of the Nick Blakely Foundation said the player had an enlarged heart, which led to sudden cardiac arrest. The foundation tries to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and works on issues such as ensuring access to automated external defibrillators and setting training standards and safety protocols in athletic associations and schools, according to the website.

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About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.