NFL and Other Leagues Seek Exceptions From California Injury Laws

Prologue

The pioneering California Workers’ Compensation Insurance system has provided disability and medical benefits for workers injured in California for over a hundred years. The no-fault system is designed to provide immediate medical care for all injuries at the expense of the employer and/or their insurance carrier. Should a worker be unable to continue working due to his or her injury, after three days off, temporary disability payments, a percentage of actual salary, are required to begin. Should a worker be permanently injured to the extent that continuing in the same line of work is physically impossible, then retraining in a new field may also be required to be provided.

California law provides this full range of benefits not just to workers who have a single, specific injury, but also to workers who are injured slowly, cumulatively*, over time, such as the worker who pulls a heavy leaver, time after time, day after day, year after year, or a worker who is hit on the head by a 300 pound opponent, game after game, season after season, and to workers who may carry out the majority of their work duties in other states, but do some of it in California, such as a long haul truck driver, or a professional athlete who plays in games all over the country.


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Not every state provides benefits under Workers’ Compensation for cumulative injuries, and of those that do, few if any have the same liberal statute of limitations for filing cumulative injury claims as does California, which is based not on when the injury occurred, but rather on when the worker first became aware that an injury has caused a

disability.**

The Heart of the Matter – Sports Leagues and California Legislature are About to Deny Athletes Their Rightful Benefits

The NFL, and to a lesser extent major league baseball, the NBA, the NHL and that soccer league, have all had a significant rise over the past seven years in the filing of workers’ compensation claims, filed on behalf of players who over a period of years suffered cumulative trauma injuries. They are filing these claims in California, based on their having played some of their games here, and on the fact that California law allows such filings. The NFL has revenues in excess of $10 B per year and can easily pay its commissioner, Roger Goodell, a $30 M per year salary, but has become embittered and obsessed when faced with having to pay out workers’ compensation medical and disability benefits to a few thousand ex-players, the majority of whom played in the days before huge salaries and/or were fringe players who never made a star’s salary, and the majority of whom have NO medical benefits from their NFL days,

So, what has been the NFL’s response (which has been done jointly with the other leagues, though none of the others have a similar quantity of claims)? Their response was to lobby the California legislature to change the law, specifically to prohibit players who never played for teams based in California from filing claims for cumulative trauma injuries. AB 1309, which would do just that, passed the California State Assembly 61-4 and will be up for vote in the State Senate on Tuesday.


All this was documented in a detailed article in the LA Times (“Brain injuries a big problem for NFL in California“). The article related that the supporters of the bill included almost entirely “the leagues, insurance companies and individual teams”, and of course they

argued that the claims of this group of athlete are “clogging California’s workers’ comp program with the rush of filings, making it harder for the state’s other workers to get their cases heard”. What rubbish.

First of all, these claimants have as much right to have their claims heard as any other injured workers, and second, the system can handle significantly more claims than it does now. In the 1980s when attorney advertising became legal in California, and injured workers much more readily became aware of their rights to seek redress for their injuries, the Workers’ Compensation system saw a significant rise in the number of claims, a rise by hundreds of thousands of yearly claims. Accordingly, the WCAB responded with additional personal and with the opening of several additional offices. In Los Angeles County the number of offices increased 33%, in Orange county, 100%. Since the mid-1990s, the number of claims has proportionately decreased, and decisions were made to close several offices. The system could easily expand again, but that would be far from necessary. There are 24 WCAB offices in California. If there are pending around 4,500 such claims, as stated in the article, that is less than 200 per office. That can be, and has been, easily absorbed by the existing system. Statistics show that these athletes’ claims comprise 1/2 of 1% of WCAB claims fined in California since 2006.



Another specious argument for passage of the bill is a presumed cost to the state. First, all benefits and costs of litigation are paid by the employers** (NFL, etc) and their insurance carriers. Second, and even more important, is the notion that out of state players are carpetbaggers, coming to California, and begging for handouts. In fact, pro athletes on

major league team sports, including those who play for teams located outside of California, contribute significantly to the state’s coffers. Tax law requires athletes to pay state income taxes to each state in which they play games. For example, an Arizona Diamondback player who plays nine games each season in LA, SF, and SD, or 27/162 of the season, will pay California incomes taxes on 16.7% of his salary. If he makes $10 M per year, California receives income tax on $1,666,667.

There may be anger rightly aimed at the Joe Theismanns, the Tony Dorsetts, the Earl Campbells, all seen as not in dire need of such benefits, but for every one who may not be in extreme need of health care and disability payments, there are maybe ten, maybe 100, Ryan Neufelds, who need such benefits to survive. Don’t create a second class of citizen-workers, who are bared from receiving the benefits to which they are entitled.

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[I specialized in personal injury claims including civil negligence claims and workers compensation injuries. A sub-specialty was cumulative work injuries, and I handled somewhere in the area of 3,000 such claims on behalf of injured workers over my 27 years practicing law in California. -theHoundDawg]

*California Labor Code, Sec.5412: “The date of injury in cases of occupational diseases or cumulative injuries is that date upon which the employee first suffered disability therefrom and either knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known, that such disability was caused by his present or prior employment.”

**Many NFL teams are apparently self-insured for workers’ compensation, but for those who paid premiums to insurance carriers for decades, now those carriers are part of this movement to prohibit claims, all for their personal financial windfall.

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