It is rare for the paths of workers’ compensation and “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” to cross. But that is exactly what happened over the last few months within the NFL labor dispute. As the video of non-sanctioned player workouts rolled, and the bottom line “tweets” from players, owners, NFLPA reps, and the Commissioner scrolled, one of the major battles in the back room negotiations was the often overlooked issue of professional sports workers’ compensation claims.
Typical of the workers’ compensation field, the issue was not flashy or headline grabbing. Rather, it was more of a “where the rubber meets the road” point of contention. At the crux of the battle was jurisdiction for injured players filing workers’ compensation claims, i.e., where can a player file his workers’ compensation claim. The owners were fresh off an adverse federal court ruling in early 2011 which restricted the teams’ offset and reimbursement rights for team provided benefits and salaries when workers’ compensation benefits were also paid to injured players. No doubt this intensified the owners’ desire to restrict the jurisdictions available to players for workers’ compensation benefits. Conversely, the players refused to give ground on the workers’ compensation jurisdictional issue. According to Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, “ [we] will never let [the league] restrict our health and safety long term.”
The NFL collective bargaining negotiations were taking place in Washington, D.C., but the epicenter of the debate was located clear across the nation in the State of California. Workers’ compensation legislation varies throughout our fifty states, and as a result, state specific benefits provided to injured workers also vary. Some states pay higher monetary benefit rates, while others provide longer or more comprehensive medical benefit coverage. It seems that California has both more lucrative monetary benefits and more comprehensive medical benefit coverage. Plus, California has a very low jurisdictional threshold for filing a workers’ compensation claim. In fact, it is reported that an NFL player who has played a game in California, even though an injury may not have occurred within that particular game, may still file a workers’ compensation lawsuit in California. This is unlike many states where for jurisdiction to be proper there must be principal localization of employment which has as an element some degree of foreseeable future work performance.
California and Florida currently share the highest number of professional football teams, each with three. With professional football teams in San Francisco, San Diego, and Oakland, the comparatively high number of California team “home” games potentially expose numerous visiting franchises to literally hundreds of California workers’ compensation claims each season.
With the low jurisdictional requirements, liberal monetary benefits and employee (and thus NFL player) friendly medical benefits, it is not surprising that team owners outside California want to restrict the locations of workers’ compensation claims. Even if your local pro football team is located in a state where workers’ compensation benefits are more favorable to employers in general, the team will still have the added exposure for claims in a less favorable jurisdiction, such as California. The end result is a higher expense for providing workers’ compensation coverage in other states, like California.
Ultimately, Drew Brees and the NFLPA were able to run out the clock in the collective bargaining negotiations (the new CBA does not include any restriction of workers’ comp claim locations) thus securing what will surely be hailed as an important victory for injured NFL players. As the injury claims for repeat impact trauma and concussions with resulting mental and physical deficits increase, this will likely be a very significant and costly issue for the league. The owners are not through fighting, though. California legislation is currently in the works to close the jurisdictional loopholes which are being utilized by NFL players for workers’ compensation claims.
No doubt, you will be hard pressed to find the final outcome of this issue on any SportsCenter broadcast. But that doesn’t decrease the importance of this issue for NFL owners or regular employers throughout the nation.
Jonathan L. Berryhill, Esq. is the managing partner of Wilson & Berryhill, P.C., a Birmingham, Alabama defense litigation firm. His practice centers on representation of employers, self-insurer funds, and insurers in all aspects of work related injuries and claims. He is an active member of DRI and its Workers’ Compensation section, and also serves as the Vice Chair for the Workers’ Compensation Section of the Alabama State Bar. You may contact Jonathan through the firm’s website at www.wilsonberryhill.com.