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  • Writer's pictureVillanova Sports Law Blog

A Close Look Into the Zeke Upshaw Wrongful Death Suit Against the NBA

Updated: Feb 12

By Monica Matias:

In March 2018, Zeke Upshaw of the NBA G League was playing man-to-man defense when he suddenly collapsed on the floor.[1] Despite there being no indication of any blow or physical contact suffered by Upshaw, team personnel engaged in concussion protocol and didn’t immediately initiate any life saving measures, such as CPR.[2] Upshaw was transported to a nearby hospital where he was unfortunately pronounced dead two days later. Upshaw’s family initially filed a wrongful death suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York but later withdrew the suit.[3] Now, almost six months after the tragedy, Upshaw’s mother has refiled the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The lawsuit seeks damages based on the claim that the defendants were negligent in how they responded to the incident.

Upshaw’s wrongful death suit names the NBA, the DeltaPlex Arena, the Detroit Pistons, and the SSJ Group as defendants. The complaint alleges that the defendants were negligent for failing to have a team physician in the arena, and medical personnel that did tend to Upshaw acted slowly and without a clear strategy to help him.[4] In order to prevail on the negligence claim, Upshaw’s attorneys will have to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendants owed a duty to Upshaw, that they breached that duty, and that the breach caused Upshaw’s death. The suit details various instances as proof that the defendants acted negligently, including failing to perform CPR when Upshaw collapsed, use a defibrillator to resuscitate him, have adequate medical staff, and perform thorough physical examinations.[5]

Attorneys for Upshaw’s family assert two main arguments demonstrating that the defendants’ conduct shows a clear deviation of what would appear to be a reasonable reaction under the circumstances. First, Upshaw had a history of cardiomyopathy, a heart condition, and the organization knew and ignored this.[6] Second, when Upshaw collapsed, the medical staff acted without urgency in trying to revive him. In fact, video footage of the tragedy shows Upshaw lying unconscious on the court surrounded by medical personnel for almost four minutes, during which there was no attempt to use the defibrillator available at the arena, or even perform CPR on him. The video also shows the crowd’s reaction to the events, with many crying out to the medical staff to take action, as no one seemed to actually be helping him.

The defendants in the case have not yet responded to the complaint or stated any defenses that contradict what the plaintiffs are asserting. It remains to be seen if they have any inside knowledge or conflicting facts that might explain why they acted the way they did. Although their side of the story has not been told yet, it seems pretty hard to dispute the evidence shown in the video footage. Whether they were following proper protocol or if they were in fact negligent is something that we will learn as the case proceeds. However, whatever the legal implications may be, it is clear from the video that Zeke Upshaw was left lying in the middle of the court as hundreds of people watched his life slowly slip away. Maybe the defendants have a legitimate reason to explain why they seemingly failed to act accordingly, but it is hard to believe that there can be an ever be a good enough reason for failure to act on behalf of on-site medical staff when that inaction results in death.

[1] McCann, Michael, Examining the Zeke Upshaw Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against the NBA, Sports Illustrated (June 1, 2018),

[2] Id.

[3] Ellis, Vince, Zeke Upshaw wrongful death lawsuit refiled with Michigan U.S. court, Detroit Free Press (Oct. 30, 2018),

[4] McCann, Michael, Examining the Zeke Upshaw Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against the NBA, Sports Illustrated (June 1, 2018),

[5] Id.

[6] Wallner, Peter J., Zeke Upshaw wrongful death lawsuit moved to Michigan federal court, Michigan Live (Nov. 2, 2018),

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