A federal judge in Atlanta has thwarted the efforts of nine former Atlanta Falcons players to litigate in California, rather than in Georgia, their workers’ compensation claims arising from old football injuries.
In refusing to allow the former players to seek compensation under California law, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash of the Northern District of Georgia affirmed a New York binding arbitration ruling for the Falcons and the National Football League that the former players had to seek compensation in their old team’s home state.
California’s more-expansive workers’ compensation laws allow professional athletes who may have played as little as a single game in the state to compensation claims for long-term injuries they sustained years earlier.
California, according to ESPN, is also the only state that allows workers to file a “cumulative trauma” case based on repetitive injuries and has no time limit on when claims can be filed.
In addition, California law does not allow employees to sign away certain workers’ rights and bars employee unions from bargaining them away. The law has paved the way for players’ claims that contracts requiring them to file workers’ compensation claims in their home states may be unenforceable.
In his order, though, Thrash pointed out that the players “have not argued they were specifically injured in California” and that they had played only four out of 186 games there.
Despite claiming their injuries “are the cumulative result of playing professional football for the Falcons,” Thrash wrote, “the players’ tenuous connection with California may not even implicate the state’s workers’ compensation system.”
‘Extensive contacts with Georgia’
“On the other hand,” the judge wrote, “the players have extensive contacts with Georgia, including playing and practicing in Georgia, as well as contracting for Georgia benefits.”
The players’ local counsel, Peter Anderson of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, referred questions to his partner,Cheryl Haas-Goldstein, who could not be reached for comment. Members of the players’ legal team at Winston & Strawn in New York referred questions to the National Football League Players Association in Washington, but a spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.
The team’s lawyers, Darrick McDuffie of King & Spalding and Daniel Nash of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, also could not be reached for comment about the case.
Falcons spokesman Brian Cearns referred questions to the National Football League. An NFL spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Professional football players injured while playing are generally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, including medical expenses. According to the NFL Players Association, the teams will not pay medical expenses after a player leaves the game unless the player files a workers’ compensation claim.
The former Falcons—Roderick Coleman, Wilfrey Fontenot, Tony Gilbert, Kindal Moorehead, Stanley Pritchett, Karon Riley, Brett Romberg, Jason Webster and Dez White—are among hundreds of former pro football players across the country who have lodged workers’ compensation claims in California, even if the teams for which they played were headquartered in other states.
Among them are players from teams that include the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints.
Head-injury cases mounting
The suit is one facet of an expanding fight between former players and the NFL over the cumulative effects of injuries, many of them involving head trauma, sustained during the course of their careers.
In the Northern District of Georgia, 19 suits on behalf of injured former professional football players have been filed seeking compensation for the cumulative effects of head trauma.
Hundreds of former players are contending that the league not only failed to protect them but also ignored a growing body of scientific evidence that players who suffered concussions might face neurological problems as they aged.
Those suits, along with dozens of others across the country on behalf of thousands of former players, have been transferred to Philadelphia, where they have been combined in multidistrict litigation in front of U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The workers’ compensation suits, including the one before Thrash, are separate from the multidistrict litigation, which focuses strictly on traumatic brain injuries.
This past March, the Atlanta Falcons Football Club sued nine of their former players and the NFL Players Association in Atlanta. Their intent was to affirm a New York arbitrator’s determination that the players must halt their efforts to collect workers’ compensation benefits in California, where they had cumulative trauma claims pending before the state’s compensation board.
None of the players were from California. Six live in Georgia, one in Arizona, one in Alabama and one in Florida.
The Falcons claimed that, in filing for workers’ compensation in California, the former players had violated the terms of their contracts, which had been negotiated on their behalf by the players’ association.
The Falcons contract included a requirement that workers’ compensation claims would be governed by Georgia law and its designated State Board of Workers’ Compensation as the jurisdiction for resolving injury-related claims.
Similar efforts by former players from the Tennessee Titans, the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints also have failed, although the Tennessee case remains on appeal.
“The forum selection and choice-of-law clauses to which the players agreed must be respected,” team lawyers argued in one brief. “[T]he players agreed to bring their workers’ compensation claims in a Georgia forum.”
They also argued, “if anything, an award allowing the players’ cumulative trauma claims to proceed in California would be unconstitutionally ‘arbitrary’ and ‘fundamentally unfair’ because the players’ only connection to California was that they played less than 2 percent of their games there.”
In response, the players had argued that the workers’ compensation clauses in their contracts were not enforceable because they impermissibly limited them to seeking workers’ compensation benefits in Georgia, even though they claimed that their football-related injuries had either been sustained or aggravated during games they played in California.
Because of that, the players argued that California law allowed them to file workers’ compensation claims, regardless of the terms of their contracts.
They also argued that the federal law has designated as unenforceable any contract terms requiring the employees who signed them to surrender legislated rights, such as compensation.