Ex-PSU doc awarded $5.25M in suit alleging James Franklin interference

ByPaula Lavigne ESPN logo
Thursday, May 30, 2024

A jury Wednesday found in favor of a former Penn State athletics team doctor who claimedthat he was removed as team physician in retaliation for complaining about head football coach James Franklin interfering with medical treatment and return-to-play decisions.

A Dauphin County jury in Harrisburg awarded orthopedic surgeon Dr. Scott Lynch $5.25 million in punitive and compensatory damages. Testimony during the seven-day trial included former Penn State players, doctors, athletic trainers, university system officials and others discussing examples of injuries and medical decisions.

Lynch said in a phone call with ESPN that he hopes the verdict will prompt an investigation by the NCAA, which has had a policy guaranteeing independence of sports medicine staff since 2016. "There's not yet been one school punished for violating medical autonomy issues," he said.

"This is bigger than just Penn State," Lynch said. "It's really a national crisis and things have to change." He said he hoped the size of the money awarded in his case would prompt schools to pay more attention to this issue.

"We are extremely disappointed to learn of the jury's decision, as we continue to believe that the claims in the complaint have no merit. Penn State Health will soon determine whether it will appeal the decision," Penn State Health said in a statement.

"Penn State Health and the University remain dedicated to the health and well-being of our student-athletes."

Lynch filed suit in August 2019, about six months after being removed as football team orthopedic physician and director of athletic medicine at Penn State, a position he had held since 2014.

Lynch was suing Penn State Health's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Dr. Kevin Black, the supervisor who announced his removal. His supervisors said at the time that the university wanted a physician who lived in State College; Lynch was commuting from his home about 100 miles away in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

While Franklin and Penn State University were referenced in the lawsuit, both were dismissed as defendants in 2020 due to the statute of limitations, and Franklin was not called to testify at the trial. It's unclear whether the verdict will result in any action regarding Franklin; a spokesperson for Penn State University did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday night.

Lynch said he reported Franklin's attempts to interfere to officials within both athletics and Penn State Health, including Black, and he believed his removal in spring 2019 was in retaliation for challenging Franklin.

During his testimony, Lynch read from an email he wrote to the university's former integrity officer Bob Boland on Jan. 31, 2019, in which he alleged that Franklin's influence on then-athletic director Sandy Barbour led to his removal as team physician. He also read from an email he wrote in 2015 to Boland's predecessor, Julie Del Giorno, in which he expressed similar concerns about pressure from Franklin.

After his removal, Lynch said he made recommendations to Black to reinforce the sports medicine staff's medical autonomy and improve athlete medical treatment, but Black did not implement them, prompting him to sue.

"We need to get back to the right principles, stop hiding things, let things come out, be transparent and try to fix the problem," Lynch testified. "I'm disgusted."

Dr. Peter Seidenberg, who worked for the Penn State College of Medicine for eight years and was the primary care physician who worked alongside Lynch, described an incident in which an athlete had a high-ankle sprain and wasn't cleared to play, but Franklin "was trying to influence medical decision ... We were being pressured to release the athlete."

Former athletic trainer Tim Bream testified about a March 2017 discussion about a player who he said needed shoulder surgery. Franklin was opposed. "He had a strong opinion of what he wanted to have done, and he tried to insert that into making us see his way, which was not in the best interest of the athlete," Bream said.

He and Seidenberg also discussed a football player who attempted suicide in October 2017 and was admitted to inpatient psychiatric care. Bream and Seidenberg described a meeting with Lynch, Franklin, Barbour and others in which Franklin wanted the doctors to medically disqualify the athlete, who was still undergoing treatment, so that Franklin could use his scholarship for another player. On cross-examination by a defense attorney, Lynch said in that case the player would still receive free tuition from Penn State.

Multiple witnesses discussed a clause in the university's contract with Nike, which was up to $1.6 million by 2018, that prohibited "spatting," or the practice of wrapping athletic tape around athletes' ankles for greater support. The tape wasn't allowed to cover the Nike logo on any footwear, according to witness testimony regarding the contract, which interfered with the actions of athletic trainers and other medical staff.

Seidenberg said a Nike representative spoke to a group of athletic trainers, listed the athletes who had been spatted the weekend before "and asked why the athletes were spatted and said that the athletes should not be spatted." He said Franklin required notice each week of players who were designated to be taped.

"Coach Franklin did not want the medical staff to spat," Seidenberg testified. "He was concerned about the Nike contract."

But defense attorneys presented evidence of athletes, including former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, whose ankles were taped -- with logos visible -- and pointed out a clause in the contract that allowed for deviations due to physician-approved medical necessity.

Barkley, who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, testified in support of Franklin and said he never felt pressured by the coach regarding treatment he had for injuries.

Jurors also heard about -- and directly from -- former Penn State player Rob Windsor, who suffered a knee injury leading to a torn meniscus and said he felt pressured to return to play.

Defense attorney Sarah Bouchard tried to present Lynch as someone who had bad communication with Franklin, which led to their disputes, and that his not being on campus every day -- due to his long commute -- contributed to that breakdown. She cited the case involving Windsor, noting that Franklin was upset that Lynch wasn't in State College to discuss Windsor's options.

"And you told the jury on Friday that Coach Franklin hung up on you," she said.

"That's my assumption," Lynch said.

"And can we all agree that no one can hang up on you if you're speaking in person?" she countered.

Another defense attorney, Jan Budman, in his questioning of Seidenberg, suggested Franklin was asking questions regarding players' injuries simply "because he wanted more information."

"Coaches can ask questions for more information, and coaches do,"Seidenberg said. "It was the manner in which questions were asked and what was stated when he didn't like the answer. If a coach does not like a medical opinion and he acts angrily towards the medical staff because of that opinion and then tries to pressure the medical staff, that's inappropriate."