The New Jersey Devils put legendary enforcer Michael Peluso on the ice in the 1990s despite warnings by a team neurologist that it could cause a recurrence of a seizure he suffered days earlier, a new complaint alleges.
The complaint filed Jan. 3 in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey is the latest ripple in litigation against the National Hockey League over concussion-related brain injuries.
It also presents a twist when compared to other concussion-related lawsuits brought by retired NHL players: Peluso focuses on fraud and conspiracy claims against the team.
“This isn’t a case where defendants are alleged to know the link between head injuries and permanent brain damage as was the NHL concussion litigation,” the complaint states. “This is a case where defendants knew of Mr. Peluso’s head injuries and his brain damage and allowed it to become much more severe and permanent.”
The alleged concealment ultimately led to a host of cognitive impairments for Peluso, 53, who says he now suffers from dementia.
Peluso suffered a grand mal seizure in 1994 after being knocked out in a fight with a Quebec Nordiques player two months earlier, according to the complaint. He says the team “ignored” the team doctor’s warning that further head injuries could cause another seizure.
The 1994 report by Dr. Marvin Ruderman, attached to the complaint, states in part: “I do not believe that the participation in playing hockey in itself poses an excessive risk for the development of further seizures unless he were to sustain head injuries.”
The Devils allegedly failed to protect Peluso in subsequent games “and they hid this knowledge for years, including during the balance of plaintiff’s NHL career and for years thereafter.”
Peluso played in 458 NHL games, primarily as an on-ice enforcer. He engaged in 240 fights in those games, and was assessed 1,951 penalty minutes in his career, according to Hockey Reference, which catalogs NHL player statistics. He is one of only four NHL players to have been assessed more than 400 penalty minutes in one season, according to the complaint.
More Litigation Possible
Peluso’s case may not be the only brain injury litigation the NHL and its teams face in the future.
Scores of concussion-related claims by retired NHL players—who alleged the NHL failed to warn or protect them about the long-term risks of repeated head impacts—lost some steam last July when a federal court in Minnesota declined to certify a concussion class.
The players and the league reached a $19 million tentative settlement Nov. 12, but sports lawyers tell Bloomberg Law the deal—dwarfed by a $1 billion National Football League concussion class settlement—may cause some players to pursue individual cases against the NHL and its teams.
A Devils spokesman declined to comment on the complaint.
Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello PC, as well as the Law Offices of Howard F. Silber represented Peluso.
The case is Peluso v. New Jersey Devils, LLC, D.N.J., No. 19-cv-00072, filed 1/3/19.