Against the wishes of a mother pushing for a jury trial, a Chicago judge Monday ordered a $16-million settlement of the emotionally charged lawsuit pitting the family of late football player Rashidi Wheeler against Northwestern University.
Wheeler, a 22-year-old senior strong safety who graduated from La Verne Damien High, collapsed while struggling to complete a rigorous set of wind sprints on a Northwestern practice field on Aug. 3, 2001, dying minutes later of what the Cook County Coroner ruled as exercise-induced bronchial asthma.
The unusual case, described by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Kathy M. Flanagan as "a particularly arduous and complex journey," included confrontational depositions, destroyed medical records, cover-up charges and a temporary shift to a New Jersey court.
Throughout, Wheeler's mother, Linda Will of Ontario, had aggressively refused to let Northwestern "pay without apologizing."
In firing her attorneys, including the late Johnnie Cochran Jr., four times and rejecting settlement offers, Will argued, "No one has a greater interest in this than I do, and I want my day in court."
Last month, however, a court-appointed guardian representing three children in Wheeler's six-person estate urged the judge to dismiss Will as co-administrator of the estate. The guardian said doing so would allow the parties to accept the $16-million settlement, the largest wrongful-death settlement in Cook County history for a single male under 30.
"There is a point in time in every lawsuit where compromise and settlement is the best course of action and that point has been reached in this case," Flanagan wrote in her eight-page opinion.
Flanagan's decision was met tearfully in court by Will, who had argued that a settlement would leave her with unanswered questions about her son's death -- answers she contended could only emerge in a jury trial.
"I just want to know everything about what happened to my child," Will said.
Wheeler's family filed a wrongful-death suit against Northwestern 18 days after his death, noting that the sprints were part of a mandatory football drill that violated NCAA rules for voluntary practices. The family also accused Northwestern of negligence in its sideline treatment of Wheeler, saying that those in charge of the practice had failed to identify his condition on the field and to immediately provide him emergency medical services.
In a videotape of Wheeler's collapse, a Northwestern coach was shown timing other sprinting players while teammates and trainers responded to the struggling Wheeler.
The university argued that Wheeler, who was working to become a starter in the Wildcats' secondary, contributed to his own death by ingesting, before practice, tablets and a drink mix containing ephedra, a now-banned dietary supplement.
Ephedra is an amphetamine-like herbal stimulant that was linked to dozens of heart attacks and 155 deaths before the Food and Drug Administration banned it in April 2004.
A spokesman for Northwestern said in a statement Monday that the settlement "allows the parties to avoid the expense and potential acrimony of protracted litigation."
The statement also read, "Northwestern extends its condolences to the members of Mr. Wheeler's family for their loss. The Northwestern community was deeply affected by this unfortunate death when it occurred and we continue to be mindful of it today."
The movement toward a settlement intensified this year as Northwestern attorney Eric Quandt met with attorneys representing Wheeler's long-divorced parents, Will and George Wheeler Jr. The attorneys ultimately agreed on $16 million but Will rejected a settlement, holding out for an apology from the school and construction of a permanent memorial to Wheeler.
She also said the university should fire Coach Randy Walker, defensive coordinator Jerry Brown and others she believed contributed to her son's death.
Will demanded to know why the university doctor had destroyed results of her son's final physical exam, why the university had failed to have emergency phones on the practice field, and why trainers hadn't quickly realized that Wheeler, a lifelong asthmatic, was in the throes of a major asthma attack.
"It was noble what she was trying to do," said Will's ex-husband and Rashidi's former stepfather, Hershel Will Sr. "But there's a point where wanting to carry on a battle until the end reaches foolishness."
Will's rejection of the settlement prompted George Wheeler Jr.'s attorney, Tom Demetrio, to urge Flanagan to appoint a guardian to represent the interests of three minors in the Wheeler estate, Rashidi's younger brother Hershel, 17, and two half-brothers who are the children of George Wheeler Jr. from another marriage.
Last month, guardian George Collins issued his report, stating that Linda Will should be dismissed as co-administrator, and that the $16 million should be ordered in the best interest of the children.
On Monday, Flanagan agreed.
"It is the public policy of the state of Illinois that the rights of minors are to be guarded carefully, and since every minor involved in litigation is a ward of the court, the court has not only the duty, but broad discretion to protect the minors' interests," the judge wrote in her opinion.
"This court has complete understanding of the emotional desire to seek retribution, vindication and justice, to see those who may be responsible for the loss [to] be made to compensate those who suffered the loss. However, the suit is prosecuted for the benefit of all the heirs of the deceased person, not for the individual benefit of the administrators. This case does not belong to Mrs. Will alone; it belongs to the heirs of the estate of Rashidi Wheeler."
A tearful Will told Flanagan, "I refuse the settlement, and so do my children."
Outside of court, Will said her newly retained attorney had already appealed the settlement.
"Northwestern's winning touchdown is soon to be recalled, and the attorneys who have undermined me every step of the way for their own anticipated quick trip to the bank will soon realize it won't be such a quick trip," Will said. "This is devastating and shocking, that anyone can try to undermine our legal system like this.
"Everyone's entitled to their day in court. Northwestern doesn't want to go to court, because it doesn't want all of the atrocities and pain and suffering it inflicted upon my Rashidi to be revealed. I'm not willing to devalue and diminish Rashidi by shutting up and taking the $16 million. I will fight until I obtain justice, and then I'll go away and shut up."
Demetrio, meanwhile, praised Flanagan's order, and predicted that Will's appeal would be rejected by the end of the year.
"The right thing occurred today," Demetrio said. "This is an exceptional result, an extraordinary amount. Anything could've happened in litigation, or on appeal in a case like this. That uncertainty is now taken away.
"Northwestern, by paying $16 million, is telling the world, 'We goofed up.' You don't have to be a genius to figure out you don't pay $16 million unless you contributed to causing a young man's death by being negligent."
Flanagan will decide what heirs receive what percentage of the settlement. She scheduled a status hearing for Sept. 6.
Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said the university continued "to believe strongly that Mr. Wheeler's death was caused by supplements containing ephedra that he took on the day of his death."
Northwestern "is reviewing its options" connected to its New Jersey suit claiming three ephedra product manufacturers and distributors should bear financial responsibility in Wheeler's death.
Also, Cubbage said, "The university continues to support the actions of the coaches and members of its athletic staff who were involved in this unfortunate incident." Cubbage declined to discuss whether there were plans for a permanent memorial to Wheeler on university grounds.
"This death affected us a great deal," Cubbage said. "We are truly sorry this unfortunate, tragic incident occurred. That, in my mind, is an apology."
The order pleased Hershel Will Sr.
"This might not be a signed apology or a straight-up admission, but I think Northwestern has admitted to doing something wrongful, to committing negligence, to proving my son didn't need to die," he said.
"I know the pain this caused. I cried for days. I didn't think I'd ever smile again. I've always thought the school had to do something for the pain it caused this family to experience. Now something has come out of this: Rashidi's brothers can now live comfortably and have their education paid for."