The National Collegiate Athletic Association faces a wrongful death suit in federal court over the death of a 20-year-old college football player from New Jersey who went into cardiac arrest at the end of a practice session.
Michael Mazza died after a two-hour practice at Mount Ida College in Massachusetts in February 2016, with “probable cardiac dysrhythmia” listed as the cause of death. The practice was an official team activity and was supervised by the school’s athletic director and the team’s assistant coach, the suit claimed. His parents seek compensatory and punitive damages from the school and the NCAA for negligence and infliction of emotional distress as well as payouts from insurance companies that issued policies on student-athletes.
The NCAA knows that sudden cardiac death due to training or competition in a team activity is “the most common non-traumatic cause of death among college athletes,” according to the suit, captioned Estate of Mazza v. National Collegiate Athletic Association. Mazza’s death occurred just as a multidisciplinary task force convened by the NCAA was studying cardiovascular health of student-athletes. The task force published a report in June 2016 calling for better cardiac screening of athletes and improvements to colleges’ plans for treatment of cardiac arrest.
Mount Ida’s athletic program competed in Division III of the NCAA.
The circumstances described in the report are “exactly what happened here,” said John Tatulli, the Red Bank, New Jersey, solo practitioner representing the estate. “How could they not keep an eye on this? If someone could be at risk, they needed to dig a little deeper,” he said.
Mazza, who was from Ocean Township, New Jersey, never showed signs of a heart problem before his death, according to the suit. His parents sought payment from life insurance policies in his name that were taken out by the college and the NCAA, but were told that the circumstances of their son’s death didn’t fall within the types of activities covered by the policies, said Tatulli.
The dispute over Mazza’s death is complicated by Mount Ida’s decision to close its doors effective May 17, citing financial pressures. The campus in Newton, Massachusetts, is set to be taken over by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and some Mount Ida students are expected to enroll at that school.
The Mazza suit, which was filed in state court in Monmouth County, New Jersey, on April 18, and removed to U.S. District Court in Trenton, New Jersey, on Friday, is listed as a disclosure in the 442-page sales agreement between Mount Ida and the University of Massachusetts, although no estimate of liability is provided.
Besides Mount Ida and the NCAA, the suit names Mutual of Omaha Insurance and Catlin Insurance as well as two insurance brokers. The suit brings counts for wrongful death, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract. Tatulli said he expects Mount Ida to claim charitable immunity as a defense.
Mount Ida’s lawyer in the case, Jeffrey Bell of Golden, Rothschild, Spagnola, Lundell, Levitt & Boylan in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and the lawyer for the NCAA, Alan Schoenfeld of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in New York, did not return calls about the case.