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Helmet maker not to blame in football player's injury, jury finds

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It was a collision that rewrote the future of a young man: A football team captain on the verge of heading off to college would instead become a childlike invalid who struggled to tie his shoes.

Edward Acuna was 17 when he took the field for Pomona’s Garey High on an October night. In the fourth quarter, he sustained a helmet-to-helmet hit. When the defensive lineman eventually gained consciousness, he was partially paralyzed, unable to utter simple words and had lost his short-term memory.

Four years later, a Los Angeles jury deliberated for less than 30 minutes and decided that Acuna’s severe brain injury could not have been prevented by his Riddell Revolution helmet. Acuna had sued the company, claiming it knowingly manufactured and issued a defective helmet pad.

An attorney for Riddell called the allegations “baloney.”

“It’s the helmet my son wore, in high school and college,” said James Yukevich in his closing statement. “It protects your head. It performs better than any standard that exists in the world.” Peyton Manning, he added, wore the Revolution in the Super Bowl.

Acuna’s lawyers had argued that Riddell’s helmets would have offered more protection if outfitted with pads made of a material known as high density vinyl nitrile instead of polyurethane.

“We think the technology exists and can and should be used to protect football players from preventable catastrophic injuries such as Edward’s,” attorney Ilyas Akbari said in a statement after the jury of nine men and three women delivered the verdict.

Shrugged off for decades as an unavoidable consequence of a tough sport, head injuries have become one of football’s biggest obstacles.

Last year, the NFL reached a $765-million settlement with thousands of former players who sustained concussions. Preliminary approval of the settlement was denied by a federal judge concerned that the award, to be paid over a 20-year period, would not cover what could add up to 20,000 retired players.

Many former players are also embroiled in several class-action suits against Illinois-based Riddell, claiming that the company falsely advertised the protection their helmets could provide.

But lawsuits have had trouble finding traction when it comes to pointing the finger at alleged flaws with Riddell’s helmets. Last April, a jury in Colorado found that Riddell had failed to adequately warn players about the dangers of concussions and ordered the company to pay $3.1 million to a family whose son suffered brain damage during a high school football practice. The jury, however, rejected the allegation of a defective pad.

“Football is a tough row to hoe because it’s a violent sport and there’s no football helmet we know how to design right now that’s going to absolutely protect people,” said Daniel Lazaroff, director of the Loyola Sports Law Institute.

For Acuna, who briefly appeared in court Thursday, the verdict was another blow to a life that has had tragedy thrust upon it several times. Thirteen years ago, his father fatally shot his mother in their Baldwin Park home. He and his sister were adopted by an aunt and uncle.

Shortly before suffering the subdural hematoma, he had been accepted to Cal State L.A. and talked about attending law school. Now, he attends a special education class. He requires help getting dressed, going to the bathroom, brushing his teeth and eating. A scar stretches down the back of his skull. He walks with a cane and is prone to seizures. His attempts to speak are garbled.

Sometimes Acuna stops in front of a hallway mirror. Family members have watched as he stares at himself and gets teary-eyed.

At home, he likes to play Uno and Go Fish and preschool puzzles on an iPad. He still loves to watch football.

corina.knoll@latimes.com 

Twitter: @corinaknoll

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