School district agrees to record settlement with ex-Wharton High linebacker

Sean McNamee, left, and family attorney Steve Yerrid, point to the scar on McNamee’s stomach. The Hillsborough County School District agreed to a record settlement of $2 million with the former Wharton High linebacker.  [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2013)] 
Sean McNamee, left, and family attorney Steve Yerrid, point to the scar on McNamee’s stomach. The Hillsborough County School District agreed to a record settlement of $2 million with the former Wharton High linebacker.  [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2013)] 
Published Oct. 28, 2015

TAMPA — More than two years after sustaining a head injury that put him in a coma for nine days and required two brain surgeries, former Wharton High School linebacker Sean McNamee stood outside the Hillsborough County School District building Tuesday, thankful for the end of a long legal process.

"Everybody would (be glad)," he said.

The School Board agreed to a $2 million settlement, the largest in district history, according to McNamee's attorney Steve Yerrid.

The School Board also agreed, starting in the fall of 2016, to provide an additional $1 million in coverage above the $300,000 already granted in cases of wrongful injury or death for all student-athletes in Hillsborough County.

"This young gentleman's medical bills are almost in that amount, so under that scenario, we could have gotten the additional money from the insurance company," Yerrid said. "Here, we're going to go through the claims bill process."

Sovereign immunity limits the amount that can be received in a lawsuit against a School Board to $300,000. McNamee will have to petition the state Legislature with a claims bill to receive the remaining $1.7 million, an effort Yerrid said the School Board will support as part of the agreement.

The size of the settlement is unusual by school district standards and well above the settlements paid after two students with disabilities died in 2012.

The district agreed to a series of payments estimated at more than $500,000 after Jennifer Caballero, a student with Down syndrome, drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School. There was no lawsuit, and as with the McNamee case, the district agreed to take new safety measures.

In the case of Isabella Herrera, a student with physical disabilities who died after going into respiratory distress on a school bus, the family sued in federal court to avoid the monetary cap on actions taken against governmental institutions. The district fought back, saying the suit belonged in state court. Ultimately, the sides settled for $800,000.

In response to McNamee's injury, the School Board has agreed to implement "The McNamee Protocol." It will set uniform procedures to be followed in the event of a suspected head injury.

In October 2013, the school trainer called McNamee's mother to come pick him up, but EMS was not called. McNamee slipped out of the training room to drive, while dazed, the 4 miles home.

Yerrid said he's been in contact with the Florida High School Athletic Association about bringing the protocol to the other 66 counties in the state.

"For today at least, all the parents, all the students in our fine public school system, and, yes, certainly this School Board of Hillsborough County, ought to be encouraged by the great steps we've taken on everyone's behalf," Yerrid said, "not just to address what's happened to Sean, but also to address what has not happened to other students."

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McNamee was injured when he went up for a pass and hit his head on a paint machine used to line the practice field. He was not wearing a helmet or pads because practice had not yet begun. A CT scan revealed swelling and bleeding in his brain and a fractured skull. Doctors instructed the McNamees to say goodbye to their son.

Nine days in a coma, two brain surgeries and a titanium plate in his skull later, McNamee survived. In September 2014, Yerrid filed a lawsuit against the School Board, claiming the coaching and training staffs should have further evaluated McNamee's injury and called for additional help.

McNamee, who is taking college classes in Tallahassee, said he still deals with headaches and epileptic seizures as a result of the injury. He is currently unable to have a driver's license.

While Yerrid hopes Hillsborough County doesn't forget McNamee's case and the lessons that can be learned from it, McNamee himself is trying to do just that.

"I'm just building myself up, day by day, just getting ahead in school trying to succeed," he said. "Make it the past."

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.