The National Football League and the Atlanta Falcons are suing nine former Falcons players to force them to litigate workers’ compensation cases in Georgia rather than in California, where dozens of current and former NFL players have sought compensation for injuries sustained from playing football.
The eight-page suit, filed by King & Spalding attorneys Darrick L. McDuffie and S. Stewart Haskins II on behalf of the Falcons and the NFL Management Council, asks U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. to enforce what the suit called a binding arbitration ruling issued last month in New York.
That ruling by arbitrator Michael Beck ordered the nine former Falcons to halt their efforts to collect workers’ compensation benefits in California for injuries stemming from their careers with the Falcons.
When the suit was filed March 5, the players’ claims were pending before the workers’ compensation board in California, the complaint alleges.
The suit appears to be part of a broader fight between the league and the players over how and whether current and former players should be compensated for injuries incurred on the playing field.
The former Falcons players include Roderick Coleman, Wilrey Fontenot, Tony Gilbert, Kindal Moorehead, Stanley Pritchett, Karon Riley, Brett Romberg, Jason Webster and Dez White.
Professional football players injured while playing are generally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits while they are out of work; the benefits include pay for medical expenses arising from that injury, according to the NFL Players Association website.
“This is important since NFL clubs will not pay medical expenses after a player leaves the game unless the player files a workers’ compensation claim,” the website states.
The Atlanta suit is one of a number of federal suits the NFL and professional football teams are filing against hundreds of former football players who have lodged workers’ compensation claims in California, even when the teams for which they played are based elsewhere.
According to a 2010 New York Times investigation, California is the only state where professional athletes who have played as little as a single game in the state may file workers’ compensation claims for long-term injuries they may have sustained years earlier.
According the Times report, California law also bars employees from signing away certain workers’ rights and their unions from bargaining them away. Those policies have prompted the players association to argue that player contracts requiring them to file workers’ compensation claims in their teams’ home states may be unenforceable.
Football players from the Cincinnati Bengals, the Denver Broncos, the Tennessee Titans, the Miami Dolphins, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons have filed workers’ compensation claims in California, according to national news reports.
California’s liberally construed workers’ compensation laws have been bolstered by the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement with the players association. That agreement—which ended last year’s lockout—included a provision that allows players to file workers’ compensation claims in states where their teams aren’t based, according to the website Business Insurance.
But NFL attorneys have fought back, taking the players’ claims to arbitration and then seeking federal judgments to enforce the owners’ contentions that players’ contracts require them to seek compensation in the states where the professional teams for which they played make their homes. Last year, the NFL Management Council won a ruling in arbitration that eight former New Orleans Saints players would have to seek workers’ compensation claims in Louisiana, according to Sports Business Journal Daily. Last month, the Kansas City Chiefs won a similar decision in arbitration against former players who had filed workers’ compensation claims in California.
New York attorneys Adam J. Kaiser and Jeffrey L. Kessler of Dewey & LeBoeuf, who represent the NFL Players Association and the Falcons players, could not be reached for comment.
McDuffie, the Falcons’ attorney, declined to comment, referring all questions to the Falcons ball club. A Falcons spokesman wasn’t able to provide any comment on the case by press time. A spokesman for the NFL Management Council couldn’t be reached for comment.
The workers’ compensation cases reflect growing court battles over professional football injuries.
Six cases in federal court in Atlanta seeking compensation for traumatic head injuries by former players have been transferred to federal court in Pennsylvania as part of what is now multi-district litigation involving dozens of suits.
The Atlanta suits, brought on behalf of nearly three dozen former players, claim the NFL failed to protect players from long-term brain injuries. One of the suits was filed by Christine Dronett, the wife of former Atlanta Falcon Shane Dronett, who committed suicide three years ago.
After Dronett’s death, his brain was sent to Boston University School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encepalopathy, where pathologists found he suffered from a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive head trauma, said Michael L. McGlamry, whose firm Pope McGlamry Kilpatrick Morrison & Norwood is representing the plaintiffs in the Atlanta cases.
McGlamry said the NFL’s Atlanta suit isn’t related to the head trauma litigation. But, he said, “It’s consistent with what the NFL has argued or stated in response to the concussion cases—that essentially the collective bargaining agreement controls, and these cases should be dismissed.”
But, McGlamry said, players and their family members whom his firm represent aren’t alleging that the NFL violated the collective bargaining agreement with the players.
“We are arguing they committed negligence, fraud and intentional misrepresentation separate and apart from, above and beyond” the collective bargaining agreement, he said.
The workers’ compensation dispute in federal court is Atlanta Falcons v. The National Football League Association, No. 1:12-cv-753 (N.D. Ga.).