Now that the NFL lockout is over, football fans across the nation are excited for the upcoming season. One of the last issues to be resolved was the ability for players to file workers’ compensation claims in states where their team is not based. This was a particularly thorny issue that owners did not want to concede. Because of the speed and violent collisions inherent to professional football, NFL players get injured on the job much like any other employee and they have the opportunity to file for workers’ compensation. Since injuries are large part of the game, owners are concerned about players forum-shopping in the hopes of maximizing their potential compensation.
This issue could be especially complicated when considering the plight of recently retired players. Under California law, retired players may seek workers’ compensation benefits from a former team if they have played at least one game in the state. Essentially, if a player from the Buffalo Bills was injured in a game against the San Francisco 49ers, he would be eligible for workers’ comp benefits.
California allows for limited contacts to protect truck drivers, seasonal harvesters and other transient workers who work in the state for short periods of time. Professional athletes have been able to benefit as well. According to a New York Times report, hundreds of football players have received awards or settlements worth at least $100,000. Many more players are currently seeking benefits, claiming that they played at least one game in the state.
Football players typically find higher payouts in California compared to other states, and the statute of limitations is longer. Former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeil petitioned for benefits stemming from early onset of dementia in 2009, nearly 25 years after playing in the NFL. McNeill, an attorney in California who practiced workers’ compensation law, suspended his license because he could no longer practice, allegedly because of repeated head trauma playing football. He seeks benefits to cover future medical expenses associated with his condition.
Other states, like Florida, do not operate in the same manner. Florida law does not recognize professional athletes as employees, so sports teams do not have to provide workers’ compensation for players. Instead, a special arbitration process is used to resolve players’ injury claims. The NFL sought to incorporate this process to streamline the resolution process and to limit teams’ exposure to future workers’ compensation claims. However, the NFLPA relied on U.S. Supreme Court precedent indicating that employees could seek benefits in any state that has proper jurisdiction to hear such claims. Further, the Court has repeatedly held that under federal law, employees cannot bargain away certain rights created under state employee benefits laws.
As such, players can continue to seek benefits in California for now, but lawmakers may consider closing the loophole and limit claims to those who actually played for the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers.
If you have questions about your ability to seek benefits in a particular state, whether or not you are a professional athlete, an experienced work comp attorney can advise you.