The Playing Field Tilts in Workers’ Comp Cases

Worker safety is an issue in virtually every industry or profession. Injuries can trigger Workers’ Compensation claims by everyone from executives making million dollar salaries to fast food restaurant employees being paid the minimum wage. Case in point: The overwhelming number of concussions suffered by professional athletes, especially those performing in the National Football League (NFL), has resulted in Workers’ Comp claims throughout the country.

But the tide appears may be shifting against the athletes. Two recent developments bear this out — restrictive legislation being passed in California and a new court case in Pennsylvania denying benefits.

1. The California Workers’ Comp System

California is known to have a liberal Workers’ Comp system. This worked to the advantage of professional athletes who became eligible as soon as they played one game in the state. The state was often considered a “last resort” venue because professional athletes could still initiate Workers’ Comp claims after the statute of limitations in their home states expired, provided they weren’t informed by their employers of their Workers’ Compensation rights. Furthermore, California is one of just a handful of states recognizing the impact of “cumulative trauma” over time.

More than 3,400 former NFL players have filed for Workers’ Compensation in California based on alleged head or brain injuries since 2006, including high-profile stars Earl Campbell, Deion Sanders and Tony Dorsett (see box). During this same time period, more than  two-thirds of all cumulative trauma filings by athletes in California were made by players from out-of-state teams.

However, in 2013 the state enacted legislation significantly limiting Workers’ Compensation claims by professional athletes. This culminated nearly 18 months of lobbying by the NFL, Major League Baseball, other sports leagues and Workers’ Compensation insurers. The new law has has been widely viewed as a victory for the NFL, which has been trying to reduce its financial exposure due to concussions and other head injuries.

Under the new law, Workers’ Comp claims can’t be filed by an athlete who did not play on a California team for at least two complete seasons. Furthermore, players who spent seven or more seasons based outside the state will not be allowed to file — even if they meet the two-season requirement. Critics of the new law argue that it benefits special interest groups – namely the NFL and other professional league owners — while providing little benefit for the state as a whole. Nevertheless, the last-chance option is no longer available to most professional athletes.

2. The New Pennsylvania Case

Facts of the case: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Ainsley Battles, a former defensive back with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who claimed Workers’ Comp benefits for an on-field injury. The highest court in the state didn’t provide any specifics on the denial.

Battles tore his left hamstring during the first game of the season in 2004. He had surgery three days later and began rehabilitation with the team’s athletic trainer. In 2005, the Steelers decided to not re-sign Battles, although he was allowed to continue the rehab with team trainers at no cost. Subsequently, Battles was awarded $50,000 in severance pay. He was cleared for football action but never played professionally again.

Since his departure from the NFL, Battles has worked as a personal trainer and a medical device salesman. Currently, he teaches social studies and coaches football and track at a high school in Georgia.

In 2007, Battles filed a claim seeking total disability benefits from the period of September 12, 2004 through January 30, 2007 and partial benefits from January 31, 2007 to the present day. After the Steelers denied the claim, a Workers’ Compensation judge ruled against Battles. Reason: Although he clearly sustained a work-related injury, it didn’t cause him any personal income loss.

The judge determined that the Steelers essentially accepted a medical-only claim by recognizing Battles’ work injury and paying all related medical expenses. He noted that the team paid Battles the amount of his salary required under his one-season contract.

Based on the opinions of two physicians, the judge also found that Battles had regained his physical ability to play professional football after the surgery and rehab. He lost his spot on the team because the Steelers preferred to hire another player, the judge found, not because of his injury and physical condition. Battles failed to prove that his injury resulted in any compensable period of disability, so his claim was denied.

After the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) agreed with the administrative judge, Battles appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. He contended that his hamstring injury left him without the skills needed to play football on the professional level. But the three- judge panel sided with the administrative judge and the WCAB. It ruled that Battles didn’t meet the burden of showing a compensable disability in the form of lost earnings even though he missed the 2004-05 season due to his hamstring injury.

The panel commented on the fact that Battles didn’t suffer any earnings losses during that period. The Steelers paid him the amount required by contract. Also, it opined that the team’s decision to replace Battles wasn’t motivated by his injury status, but the desire to acquire a “better” player. The Steelers were able to convince the panel they would have considered re-signing Battles if the other player had signed with a different team. Bottom line: Battles was denied in his quest for Workers’ Compensation benefits.

Takeaway for Other Employers

Workers’ Compensation claims aren’t limited to cases involving injuries on construction sites and other job locations that are clearly hazardous. Claims are also not restricted to a certain class of worker or income level. Both employers and employees should be apprised of the rules pertaining to Workers’ Compensation and stay up-to-date on the laws evolving in this area.