- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - A private corporation that runs the University of Central Florida’s athletic program won’t have to pay $10 million to the family of a football player who died during practice, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court ruled the University of Central Florida Athletic Association is entitled to the same sovereign immunity that protects state agencies from paying more than $200,000 in damages, saying the association doesn’t operate autonomously from the public university.

The decision has big implications for dozens of private corporations in Florida that run many functions of the state’s public universities. The corporations, also known as direct support organizations, oversee everything from athletic programs to dorm construction to salaries. University corporations from across the state supported the University of Central Florida Athletic Association’s position that it was a function of the school.

In their ruling, the justices said the University of Central Florida, a state agency, controlled the association’s board of directors and that the school’s board must approve any changes to the association’s bylaws.

The association is “primarily acting as an instrumentality of the state and is thus entitled to limited sovereign immunity,” the justices said.

Football player Ereck Plancher collapsed and died during a 2008 practice. His family sued the association, claiming negligence. A trial court awarded the family $10 million.

An appellate court, however, ruled that the association was entitled to sovereign immunity.

The Supreme Court voted 6-0 with one recusal to uphold the lower court ruling. The high court’s ruling differed slightly than the appellate court’s decision in that the justices upheld the jury judgment of $10 million but limited the association’s liability to $200,000. The appellate court had reduced the judgment to $200,000.

The Supreme Court said Plancher’s family could seek more than the $200,000 limit through the Florida Legislature.

“We support the ruling and appreciate the careful consideration justices gave to this important statewide issue,” said Grant Heston, a school spokesman.

An attorney for the Plancher family said in a statement they were disappointed.

“As a result of the court’s decision, universities like UCF are now free to delegate the responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their student athletes to private corporations, but those private corporations are neither answerable to the state nor accountable to students or their families for the harm they cause,” said attorney Steve Yerrid.

Under state law, the university corporations don’t have to make public the same records their parent universities must provide, though the corporations perform tasks once done by school employees and act on the universities’ behalf.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mikeschneiderap

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