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UCLA Sports

Three former UCLA football players sue school and coach Jim Mora over alleged mishandling of injuries

Jim Mora
UCLA coach Jim Mora directs his team against Washington on Nov. 15, 2013 at the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Three former UCLA football players are suing the school for injuries they suffered while playing under coach Jim Mora, each seeking in excess of $15 million in damages as a result of the way coaches and trainers allegedly mishandled their injuries.

In lawsuits filed Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court that name former coach Jim Mora, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm and associate trainer Anthony Venute — in addition to the UCLA regents and the NCAA — offensive linemen John Lopez and Poasi Moala allege that they suffered traumatic head injuries and continue to experience symptoms linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Another former Bruins offensive lineman, Zach Bateman, has sued the same defendants over severe injuries to both of his feet that he claims occurred and worsened because of negligent conduct. Bateman’s lawsuit alleges he was discouraged from seeking medical attention for his injuries and compelled to return to play before receiving treatment or allowing his injuries to heal.

“Each of these young men suffered serious, but significantly different injuries, while they were teammates at UCLA,” attorney Pamela Tahim Thakur, who is representing all three players, said in a statement. “While the lawsuits involve many of the same facts, each case is distinct in its own way. But what they all have in common is the pattern of brutality and intentional disregard for player health and safety by coach Mora and his staff at UCLA.”

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According to Lopez’s lawsuit, he attempted suicide in the fall of 2016 by overdosing on a combination of over-the-counter and prescription medications. Lopez informed family members and friends that he had taken the medications, allowing them to contact a friend who took him to UCLA Medical Center to help save his life.

Lopez claims that his injuries have prevented him from finishing school and have caused emotional pain, suffering and distress. Citing a “reckless disregard for [Lopez’s] health and safety,” the lawsuit also alleges that the football staff didn’t do enough to protect Lopez before and after he suffered his injuries.

UCLA’s athletic department denied the accusations in a statement released by the school.

“While we cannot comment on the specific details of a pending lawsuit, we want to make it clear that the health and safety of our student-athletes is UCLA’s top priority,” the statement read. “We strongly deny and will defend ourselves against the allegations made in the lawsuit. We handle every injury with the highest standard of care, and take potential head injuries very seriously.”

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The statement also said the school believes its concussion protocol “is among the strongest in the country” and that decisions allowing players who have suffered concussions to return to play are made solely by the medical staff without input from coaches.

Mora did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.

Moala’s lawsuit says he suffered multiple concussions as well as severe injuries to his hips that required two surgeries by the end of his college career in 2017. The lawsuit claims that Moala’s injuries might have been avoided if his coaches had taken his complaints of injury seriously rather than regularly ignoring or minimizing his complaints and ridiculing him in front of his teammates.

Lopez’s lawsuit alleges that he was rushed back to play without proper protocol procedures being followed after suffering concussions during training camp in San Bernardino in 2013 and 2014. During the 2013 practice sessions, Lopez allegedly participated in drills that “required that John take repeated hits to his head” and was one of seven players sidelined one day with concussion-like symptoms.

The lawsuit also states that the lineman was ridiculed for being injured after the first concussion, claiming that Klemm devised a drill in which Lopez’s teammates were encouraged to “[expletive] him up!” Klemm allegedly “made it a priority to shame John by unfairly reprimanding, chastising, disciplining and cursing out” the player.

As part of a culture of “no excuses” cultivated by Mora, the lawsuit alleges, Lopez was subjected to drills that were described as “unnecessarily brutal,” requiring players to practice at full speed with no safeguards against helmet-to-helmet contact. Players were also expected to play through pain, according to the lawsuit.

“Players had to be more than tough if they wanted to keep a starting spot and if they were injured,” the lawsuit states, “they could never let it slow them down if they wanted to succeed.”

During his junior season, in 2015, Lopez suffered a third concussion, resulting in symptoms so severe that he was forced to medically retire from football and left the team banquet while “in the midst of a full-fledged panic attack.” The lawsuit claims that Lopez’s brain function was already drastically impacted, leading to short-term memory loss, depression and “drastic changes in his demeanor.”

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Lopez is also “so wrought with anxiety that he cannot stand to be around his former teammates or even risk running into them on campus, making it all but impossible for him to continue his education,” the lawsuit says. He has taken a leave of absence from the school, even though he remains only a few quarters short of earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, and lives with his parents in Orange County.

ben.bolch@latimes.com


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