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UCI Fertility Scandal Delays Family’s Suit : Courts: Wrongful-death action, unrelated to egg-stealing charges, postponed for fear that the jury pool is tainted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terrie Cate had just left home for college and was excited about playing on the UC Irvine women’s soccer team as one of its top recruits when she joined her new teammates for the first day of practice.

But five miles into a six-mile training run on the streets and hills around the university, the freshman from Escondido collapsed from heat stroke. She died three days later, leaving stunned family and friends asking how such a thing could have happened to the 18-year-old they called “TC.”

Three years later, the Cate family’s wrongful-death lawsuit against the university and one of its soccer coaches has collided with the controversy surrounding UCI’s once-famed fertility clinic.

The Cate case was set for trial this summer, but UCI’s attorneys won a postponement until next month amid concerns that unrelated allegations of human egg-stealing against three physicians might taint prospective Orange County jurors.

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“The media scrutiny has been so intense, and the public outcry so vocal, that trying this case now presents a very real danger of severe prejudice to the regents and [the coach],” attorney Andrew S. Hollins, who is representing the university, said in a June motion seeking a delay. “A continuance would allow the fertility clinic story to play out and the media attention to die down.”

The family’s wrongful death lawsuit is now set for trial Sept. 11 and is expected to delve into issues of sports safety and athletic training.

Cate, the only freshman to have received a UCI soccer scholarship that year, was the second young Southern California athlete to collapse and die during the same week in August, 1992. A 17-year-old San Fernando High School football player had died of heatstroke several days earlier after collapsing following a practice.

The Cate case includes depositions from more than 30 people examining everything from Cate’s medical records since birth to how much she ate and drank in the hours before the run.

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“This is a classic case of heatstroke,” said attorney Wylie A. Aitken, who is representing the Cate family. He said Cate didn’t have any health problems that were a contributing factor to her death.

Her parents, Shirley and Webb Cate, allege in their lawsuit that the university and Coach Ray Smith were negligent and careless to allow a team run on Aug. 19, 1992, which they contend was a particularly hot day in the middle of a heat wave.

“It was a total lack of good judgment,” Aitken said. “It was 100% avoidable.”

The university’s attorney counters that the coach did nothing wrong, and no one can be blamed for the death of the athlete, who had previous trained in summer weather. UCI contends that the run occurred after the temperature had dipped and there was no reason to believe the conditions were unsafe.

“We’re sorry it happened and it’s a tragedy, but it’s not the university’s fault,” Hollins said.

Cate, an incoming freshman from Escondido San Pasqual High, collapsed toward the end of the run, which was scheduled to certify the fitness of the players before further drills.

After Cate collapsed, her teammates ran the final mile of the course, reaching Coach Smith, assistant coach Keri Bello and trainer Erica Angel. After reaching the fallen runner, Bello ran across the street to a preschool and dialed 911, with the first emergency units arriving about 25 minutes after Cate was believed to have collapsed, according to court records filed by the family’s attorney.

Cate, her body temperature reaching 107 degrees, was taken by ambulance to Irvine Medical Center, where she was in critical condition until she died three days later after suffering “multiple organ shutdown,” according to the lawsuit.

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Aitken said the university had reason to be aware of the potential danger on the day of the run. The temperature had reached into the 90s, prompting the athletic staff to delay the run for two hours until 6 p.m. when the temperature was 84 degrees, he said.

The university, however, contends it was no warmer than 80 degrees when the run began.

Another player collapsed and lost consciousness during the first 30 minutes of the run, which should have been a sign that other runners were at risk, the family alleges in their lawsuit.

They also allege that UCI staff failed to properly monitor the run, didn’t provide enough water or give Cate proper emergency care once she collapsed.

Hollins denied those accusations, saying the run was being monitored, water was provided and that the coach acted properly in responding.

Smith, who has since left the university, was particularly devastated by Cate’s death, Hollins said. “I don’t think he ever got over it,” the attorney said.

Since her daughter’s death, Shirley Cate quit her job as an escrow officer and has been traveling the country to raise awareness among coaches about potential dangers facing young athletes entrusted in their care.

“My hope is that some other family doesn’t have to go through what we have,” Shirley Cate said, fresh from a national sports briefing in Atlanta that included the release of national standards for coaches on player conditioning and injuries.

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Shirley Cate said she draws inspiration from her daughter, who signed her college admissions essay with “Carpe Diem!” to highlight her philosophy of living life to the fullest.

“My daughter was very articulate. She was student body president and she was a team captain for years,” Shirley Cate said. “She accepted a challenge and went out and met and tried to work with people. She’s the one who inspires me.”

During the trial before Superior Court Judge James H. Poole, the Cates will be seeking unspecified damages to cover medical, burial and funeral expenses and further damages for emotional trauma.

Aitken said he agreed to the latest trial delay in the wake of the fertility clinic scandal because of his own concerns about finding enough jurors during summer vacation time. But he said he would oppose any further postponement because the family is anxious to move forward.

“It’s obviously something they want to put behind them,” Aitken said. “It’s one more matter to be resolved to bring this tragedy to its conclusion.”


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