A Concussion on the Field Leads to Changes Across the Country

On October 12, 2006, during a middle-school football game, 13-year old Zackery Lystedt made a hard tackle, slamming the back of his head into the ground. He walked off the field on his own, and later returned to play the second half. But just as the game ended, Zackery collapsed. He was airlifted to a Trauma 1 hospital in nearby Seattle, where he was in a coma for the next month. For nine months after, he was unable to move or even blink. For the next year and a half, he had a feeding tube inserted into his stomach. He continues to suffer cognitive and physical damage a decade later, but has become an inspirational figure for his courage and progress in rehabilitation.

Seattle attorney and AAJ member Richard Adler represented the Lystedts in litigation against the school district. The award set a precedent in Washington, and ensures Zackery has the care he needs over the course of his lifetime. But Richard didn’t stop there. He went on to fulfill a promise to Zackery’s parents to prevent and minimize brain injuries in all youth sports, so that no other child who suffered a concussion would return to play too soon. 

As the President of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington, he continued to raise awareness about youth sport concussions. He worked with Zack’s family to tell their story to local media. He met with the CEO of the Seattle Seahawks, who co-sponsored a statewide educational campaign for schools and youth sports leagues on concussion protocols. Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren sent personalized letters to these schools and leagues.

Richard brought together community partners including the Washington State Association of Youth Soccer, Washington State Athletic Trainers Association, Seattle Children’s’ Hospital, Washington’s Interscholastic Activities Association, and even the statewide insurance risk pool. Together, they lobbied the Washington state legislature to adopt a return-to-play law—commonly referred to as “When in Doubt, Sit Them Out.”

In 2009, the “Zackery Lystedt Law” was signed by Washington Governor Christine Gregoire. It was the first of its kind in the nation, a law requiring any youth athlete in any sport who is suspected of having a concussion or head injury be removed from practice or competition. Students must receive written medical clearance from a licensed health care provider trained in the evaluation and management of concussions before they can return to play. And all student athletes must sign an information sheet about concussion and head injury before the start of each season for each sport. The core principles of the Zackery Lystedt Law have become the model for similar return-to-play laws now adopted in all 50 states.

Richard still practices law in the Seattle area, remains close to the Lystedt family, and continues his advocacy for those with traumatic brain injury. For his work on this important issue, Richard was awarded the American Association for Justice's 2016 Pro Bono Award. As he says: “A concussion is a brain injury; and brain injuries are serious.”