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Companies Added in Wheeler Lawsuit

College football: Northwestern angers family by naming supplement providers as co-defendants.

April 04, 2002|LANCE PUGMIRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Insisting that football player Rashidi Wheeler played a role in his own death, Northwestern University on Wednesday named the makers and sellers of two dietary supplements as their co-defendants in the wrongful death suit.

Wheeler's family has accused the university of negligence, contending it was ill-equipped to handle an emergency situation when Wheeler, a 22-year-old starting strong safety, collapsed and died Aug. 3 after a series of rigorous conditioning sprints. Bronchial asthma was listed as the cause of Wheeler's death.

But toxicology reports also showed Wheeler had two dietary supplements containing the NCAA-banned stimulant ephedrine in his system. University officials say this is what ultimately killed him.

"Our lawsuit contends Rashidi Wheeler died from cardiac arrhythmia because he took supplements containing ephedrine before his workout," Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Kathy Flanagan's decision Wednesday to grant Northwestern permission to add the third-party defendants means that if a jury were to rule Northwestern negligent, it could also determine the percentages of a financial award to be paid by Northwestern and the supplement providers.

The decision was swiftly criticized by Wheeler family representatives.

"It's interesting to me that instead of keeping its firm position of, 'We did nothing wrong,' Northwestern is now saying, 'If we did do something wrong, we deserve to get some of the money we will lose from someone else,'" said Tom Demetrio, attorney for Wheeler's father, George.

Northwestern named Next Proteins Inc., of Carlsbad, Cytodyne Technologies and General Nutrition Corporation in the suit. Next Proteins formerly manufactured and distributed Ultimate Punch and Cytodyne manufactures and distributes Xenadrine RFA-1, the fat-burning products Wheeler allegedly ingested. Northwestern claims the supplements were purchased at a General Nutrition store.

Judy Katz, a spokeswoman for New Jersey-based Cytodyne, said she had not seen the suit, but added, "We are very proud of our product." David Jenkins, the president of Next Proteins, said his company chose to stop making its product last year because sales were lacking and the controversy was escalating.

"We've decided we don't want to be party to that debate any longer," Jenkins said.

The wrongful death lawsuit also took another turn Wednesday when it was announced that famed attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and his Chicago law partner, Jim Montgomery, have been reinstated as attorneys for Wheeler's mother, Linda Will.

"This is not just a case with Linda, it's about structural change, and she wants me involved in every aspect to accomplish that something extra," Cochran said. "This idea of placing winning above the well-being of our student-athletes has gotten out of hand. You can't shade the rules, calling a workout voluntary when it's being supervised and there are repercussions to not performing well.

"Here we are, on the day spring practice begins, and the NCAA still hasn't come forward on this issue in eight months since Rashidi died. We can't sue them, but we can ratchet up a lot of pressure on them. We can exact change."

Will dropped Cochran in November and replaced him with Larry Rogers Sr., who Will said was better suited for the case's complex medical evidence. Rogers said he was stunned by the reversal: "Ms. Will told me she felt Johnnie would give her case more publicity."

Demetrio, representing Will's ex-husband, said Will is likely to get what she wants.

"[Rogers'] approach is methodical ... as opposed to the approach of, 'Give me the microphone, and listen to this, NCAA.' There's no doubting that Johnnie is high-profile, though, and I do believe Linda when she says she wants all schools to sit up, take notice and not let this happen ever again."

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