Richard Nieuwenhuizen, a 41-year-old volunteer linesman officiating at an amateur soccer game in the Netherlands, died in December 2012 after he was allegedly kicked in the head, neck and body by seven teenaged players and one player’s 50-year-old father.
The Guardian recently reported six of the boys and the father were later convicted of manslaughter.
The brawl broke out just after the game ended.
“Several times, (Nieuwenhuizen) called offsides when there were none,” the accused father said.
Excuses, explanations and defenses are typical:
Somebody else did it: “I didn’t hit anyone. I tried to keep people apart,” the father said.
Others are more to blame than I am: “I only kicked him in the shoulder,” one of the boys said.
Something else killed him: A British pathologist testified Nieuwenhuizen died from a “spontaneous” tear of an abnormal artery in his neck, not from the attack.
In my experience, juries are rarely sympathetic to such arguments.
Nieuwenhuizen’s death, which – presuming the reports are accurate – I would have certified a homicide, falls outside the usual range of deaths during or related to athletic events. Nearly all such deaths are viewed and certified as accidents.
Death from a punch sustained in a bar fight is a homicide. Death from a punch sustained in a boxing match is an accident. Medical examiners have a rationale underlying this contradictory convention for certifying manner of death differently when people inflict identical, fatal injuries under different circumstances:
Boxing matches are legal; bar fights aren’t.
Boxers compete voluntarily. They understand and willingly assume well-known risks.
Death is an unintended consequence of an injury inflicted during a sporting event – though that’s generally the argument after a death in a bar fight, too.
Most medical examiners follow another convention and certify manner of death differently depending on whether death can be blamed on one discrete, specific injury (accidental death) or upon the cumulative effects of many injuries (natural death).
A relatively recent development is the realization that repeated head injuries can cause cumulative damage to the brain.
The NFL recently reached a settlement with players who have or are at risk for brain diseases they blame on head injuries. The players claim the league knew of the dangers of repetitive head injury and failed to warn and protect them.
According to the terms of the agreement, players who develop or die from diseases thought to result from repetitive head injury will be paid based on the supposition that NFL play was responsible. In January, a federal judge, concerned the amount may not be fair to players, ordered a review of the $765 million settlement.
When these players die, I wonder if the manners of their deaths should be certified natural because their causative injuries were cumulative, accident because they were sports-related or homicide because players were inadequately informed of the risk.
email@example.com. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.