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Mother Sues Pop Warner Over Suicide of Former Football-Playing Son

A Wisconsin mother filed a lawsuit against Pop Warner Thursday, accusing the organization of negligence that directly led to her son's suicide.

The plaintiff's son, Joseph Chernach, began playing youth football in a Pop Warner league in the summer of 1997 at age 11, and continued to play through the year 2000, according to the suit. Fifteen years later, Chernach committed suicide by hanging himself in his mother's shed.

"A substantial factor contributing to this hanging death was the fact that Joseph Chernach suffered from the disease of dementia pugilistica, also known as chronic  traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE," the suit alleges. "The disease ... caused severe emotional, behavior, cognitive, and physical problems in Joseph Chernach, all of which contributed to his mental state of mind at the time of his hanging."

The suit claims Chernach's suicide "was the natural and probable consequence of the injuries he suffered playing Pop Warner football." Chernach's mother, Debra Pyka, accused Pop Warner of negligence by failing to train coaches properly, having no limitations on hitting in practice, using older, unsafe helmets, and failing to warn participants and parents about the risk of brain damage.

Pyka is seeking at least $5 million in punitive damages from Pop Warner, the Pop Warner Foundation, and its insurance company, suggesting the organization "engaged in conduct that was outrageous, malicious, intentional and was done with intentional disregard of Joseph Chernach's rights as well as all other children who played Pop Warner football, not just in the State of Wisconsin, but everywhere in the United States."

The suit faces a host of potential obstacles, however, as The New York Times noted. Chernach also played high school football and wrestled for 12 years, and his parents told the paper they did not ever recall him being diagnosed with a concussion. Accordingly, it may be difficult for them to prove that his time playing Pop Warner football is what directly led to him suffering from CTE.

If a court rules in Pyka's favor, however, it could drastically reshape the landscape of youth football, as insurers would be on the hook for far more severe damages. To offset those risks, they could decide to up their premiums, which could price smaller leagues and cash-strapped schools out from hosting youth football.

"The most significant thing we're doing is telling the courts that strict liability should apply," said Gordon Johnson, the lawyer representing Chernach and his mother, to the paper. "It would establish remarkable precedent that would change youth football, because I don't think anyone would insure you if strict liability applied."

In speaking with The Associated Press, Pyka explained why she filed the lawsuit against Pop Warner.

"I think that somebody should be held accountable for Joseph's death," Pyka said. "I want to see tackle football stop for these young kids. ... They should not be banging their brains together."

The organization did not have any comment to either the AP or the Times when contacted Thursday.

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