While most football fans do not link the sight of their favorite team’s colors with issues of employment law, the American gridiron has proved to be one of the most important arenas for the development of modern workers’ compensation law. Many dedicated football fanatics talk about Jack Lambert’s toothless grimace, Joe Theismann’s broken leg, or Drew Brees’ torn labrum. Not many football fans consider how Lambert’s busted mouth is repaired, Theismann’s leg is healed, or Brees’ shoulder is reconstructed, though. The answers are found in the ubiquitous workers’ compensation system.
“This is a business” is a favored platitude among football players at the time of trades or contract negotiations. Make no mistake, football is a business. And like any other business, professional football teams have employees, and many of those employees risk injury in playing the game. As employees, our favorite football stars are eligible to collect workers’ compensation benefits through insurance policies held by the teams that employ them.
In many ways, the workers’ compensation claims in this area over the past several decades have been at the forefront of intriguing legal issues in the world of work injuries. As workforces have become increasingly mobile, workers’ compensation systems have struggled with the manner in which transient employees should be covered. Professional football has provided an excellent incubator for fact patterns in which an employee is hired and trained in one jurisdiction and subsequently injured in another jurisdiction while working. Both the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints have been the subject of prominent workers’ compensation claims where contract provisions addressing where employees may file claims regardless of the location of the injury have been the big issue. These cases have triggered intense struggles over the application of extra-territorial coverage of employees from Illinois and Louisiana.
In both cases, the issue of forum selection for a workers’ compensation claim has been intertwined with attempts by employees to forum shop for the most favorable workers’ compensation system. Not surprisingly, the most prominent football cases have revolved around attempts by players to secure workers’ compensation coverage in California. Attempts by professional football players to secure California workers’ compensation benefits actually resulted in legislative action in 2013, when California took steps to limit the ability of visiting athletes to obtain coverage under its favorable scheme. The enactment of this legislation saw a tremendous surge in the filing of football-related workers’ compensation claims immediately prior to the legislation’s effective date. Former football stars like Dan Marino and Thurman Thomas were part of this surge of “old law” claims in California.
Currently, workers’ compensation systems around the country are at the forefront of cumulative trauma and repetitive stress injuries that are being filed by professional football players. These claims are testing the historical bounds of workers’ compensation claims in terms of diagnostic requirements for compensability and statutes of limitation. It is likely that published case law will be generated in multiple jurisdictions that alter traditional legal standards on these issues. This developed law will likely be more significant in areas like Illinois, Louisiana, and California where jurisdictional questions are so important.
While most fans do not watch a game to ponder the intricacies of workers’ compensation liability, it is ironic that the pastime of so many can have such an impact on the practical aspects of employment. So, mow that lawn only a couple more times, then settle in for a fall full of football. This workers’ comp lawyer will be cheering on his Steelers and reading up on all of the new cases that this season brings.
James Heslep is a Member of Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC. He focuses his practice in the defense of workplace injuries and illnesses and allegations of workplace safety violations. He is a regular presenter at regional and national seminars on workers’ compensation issues and serves as an Adjunct Faculty Member to the Business Department of Fairmont State University, where he teaches Employment Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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