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Gathers’ Family Sues His Coach for Wrongful Death

April 21, 1990

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A $32.5 million lawsuit filed by the family of basketball star Hank Gathers claims his coach and doctors conspired to keep Gathers playing despite the heart condition that eventually killed him.

The wrongful death lawsuit Friday alleges that Loyola Marymount University coach Paul Westhead, with the university’s knowledge, asked Gathers’ doctors to reduce or change his medication to improve his play ″without regard to the physical detriment to (Gathers) and with a conscious disregard for his life and safety.″

In a statement, Westhead responded: ″As his coach, I did my best for Hank Gathers. I was never part of the medical decisions concerning Hank. I did not decide what medication to prescribe or what dosage to take.

″I feel badly that my relationship with Hank and his family could be distorted with this legal action.″

Gathers, who in 1988-89 was the nation’s leading scorer and rebounder, collapsed March 4 while playing in a West Coast Conference tournament game and was pronounced dead at a hospital less than two hours later.

Less than three months earlier, the forward had collapsed during a game and subsequent tests revealed that he had arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. He was given a medication known as Inderal and, on Dec. 21, was cleared to play, with the stipulation that his condition be monitored.

The suit cites a Jan. 29 letter written by cardiologist Dr. Vernon Hattori to internist Dr. Michael Mellman that said the initial Inderal dosage was being reduced because he was not playing well.

The letter said 240 milligrams a day almost completely controlled the heart problem. But it also said: ″His dose was diminished ... after a rather dismal performance in his first game against Xavier. On a lower dose, he apparently performed incredibly″ in games against St. Joseph’s and La Salle.

″However, his performance was obviously still being unfavorably affected by his medication, so I decreased his Inderal.″

According to the suit, the same letter said Gathers was satisfied with his medication but that Westhead requested a change in medication.

The doctors treating Gathers also didn’t fully inform him of the risk he faced in continuing to play basketball, leading ultimately to his death, attorney Bruce Fagel alleged in the 52-page complaint.

″Hank Gathers obviously can’t be replaced, but there are other athletes with medical problems,″ he said. ″The NCAA has no rules to deal with the situation, specifically or generally.″

″The family wants to make sure the same situation doesn’t happen again,″ Fagel said.

The suit names Loyola Marymount, Westhead, athletic director Bryan Quinn, team trainer Chip Schaefer and Dr. Daniel Hyslop of the school’s Student Health Service. Also named are Mellman, Hattori, cardiologist Dr. Charles Swerdlow and orthopedic surgeons Dr. Benjamin Schaeffer, Dr. Clarence Shields and Dr. Ralph Gambardella.

The suit further alleges that immediately following Gathers’ fatal collapse, Schaefer, Hyslop and Schaeffer delayed treatment for a critical 2 minutes, 45 seconds.

Following Gathers’ December collapse, the university had purchased a defibrillator, which was kept courtside. The suit charges that Loyola Marymount officials acted negligently by not using it immediately following the second collapse, according to the suit.

Joan Gaulene, a university spokeswoman, said university officials expect to be cleared of any wrongdoing.

″Loyola Marymount University is deeply saddened by the charges,″ she said. ″We expect the university and its staff members will be fully vindicated at the time of trial.″

Fagel did not rule out a settlement in the case, saying that he already has met with attorneys for the defendants and that more meetings are planned in the coming weeks.

The suit was filed on behalf of Gathers’ mother, Lucille; brothers Derrick and Charles; and his aunt, Carole Livingston. All live in Philadelphia.

Attorney Martin Krimsky said he expects to file a second suit on behalf of Gathers’ son, 6-year-old Aaron Crump, in about two weeks. He said the suits probably will be combined.

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