Cillian Willis to sue Sale Sharks over concussion

Case will the first time a professional rugby player has sued over head trauma

In what will be the first case of a professional rugby player taking his employers to court due to concussion, Cillian Willis has accused Sale Sharks of "clinical negligence".

Willis – who also played for Leinster, Connacht and Ulster – believes that Sale and two doctors wrongfully handled and incorrectly treated two head injuries he sustained while playing against Saracens in the LV Cup on March 10th, 2013.

Willis never played rugby again. He was forced to retire a short time later, aged 28, due to concussion.

“Playing with the wind Sharks were dealt an early blow when scrum-half Cillian Willis appeared to be tackled high and was attended to by the medical team,”, the club’s official website, reported on the 21-16 victory over Saracens. “Thankfully he got to his feet and resumed.”

Willis received treatment in the first half, when he claims to have been concussed, but the Sale medical team deemed him fit to play on.

Following a second head blow, after half-time, Willis was treated once more on the field but, again, allowed to play on despite, subsequently, claiming to be concussed.

He was replaced by Nathan Fowles on 47 minutes.

Willis had been concussed and treated by Sale doctors earlier that season. He has a previous history of concussions and reportedly broke his eye socket three times.

Dave Swanton, Sale Sharks' head of media who also works for BBC radio, refused to make any comment "on an ongoing legal matter" when contacted by The Irish Times.


Willis’ solicitor

Malcolm Horner

confirmed the case is going to court but was not willing to make any further comment. Three separate solicitors – for Sale and the two doctors – will contest the case taken by McHale and Co solicitors on Willis’ behalf.

It remains unclear if both doctors were fully employed by Sale Sharks at the time of treating Willis.

World Rugby and Aviva Premiership concussion guidelines, as of March 2013, were not adhered to, Willis will claim. He did not leave the field of play for treatment for either concussion. It is unclear if he received treatment for the initial head trauma at half-time.

The case, most likely to be held in Manchester, is not expected to be heard for at least 18 months.

Willis, who is Brian O’Driscoll’s first cousin, was a promising scrumhalf who first came to prominence in Blackrock College before taking up a rugby scholarship to UCD.

After representing Ireland schools, under-19 and under-21s (seven caps), he broke into the Leinster squad during the 2006/07 season.

Two years later he joined Ulster (15 caps) and then Connacht (19 caps) before Joe Schmidt gave him a short-term deal to provide cover at Leinster during the 2011 World Cup.

That led to Sale eventually offering him a two-year contract which ended prematurely due to repeated head traumas.

The 31 year-old is currently listed as a director of Dublin-based company Fwnh Ltd and lives in Wicklow.

Several professional Irish rugby players have been forced to retire due to concussion but, at present, none of them have taken the IRFU or provincial branches to court for clinical negligence arising from concussion. John Fogarty, the current Leinster scrum coach, and Bernard Jackman were both forced to retire in 2010.

Long struggle

More recently, Leinster captain Kevin McLaughlin retired aged 30 and just last week Connacht centre Dave McSharry was advised to end his long struggle to return from head trauma.

"In the professional game, those under contract are not going to do it really as they would be biting the hand that feeds them," Larry Fenelon of Leman Solicitors told The Irish Times last year.

“Perhaps when players hit their early 40s and their memory isn’t the best or there is something badly wrong, the neurosurgeon then looks at his medical record and sees rugby and a history of concussion.”

Following head injuries sustained playing rugby in November 2009, Lucas Neville received €2.75 million in damages, plus costs, from Dublin secondary school St Michael's College and St Vincent's hospital after a settlement approved by the High Court.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent