California Workers Compensation Laws Remain Sticking Point For NFL, Players

One of the numerous owner, player issues still remaining after last year's labor stoppage is the use of the California Workers' Compensation Board for more favorable judgements for players. Board case law may be changing that.

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California Workers Compensation Board Rules Against NFL Player Forum-Shopping

NFL teams earned what could be a powerful victory on May 1, as the California Workers Compensation Board handed down a ruling preventing a former NFL player from taking advantage of California's employee-advantageous workers compensation laws.

Retired defensive end Vaughn Booker filed workers compensation claims against the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers in California based on having played one game in California in 2001 as a member of the Bengals.

The NFL and the NFL Players association have been battling over workers compensation rights, with California sitting at the center of the fight. California has allowed retired NFL players to file workers compensation claims in the state, so long as they played at least one game in their career within the state. Players elect to file in California because the state generally provides higher workers comp benefit payouts than many other states. Additionally, the statute of limitations is longer in California, which means players are filing years after they retired.

The Board ruled against Booker on several grounds, with the most pertinent coming in section II(C). The board stated they would not assume subject matter jurisdiction over the case because Booker's contract with the Bengals included a forum selection clause. Addendum two of Booker's contract stated:

"As a material inducement for the Club to employ Player's services, Player promises and agrees that any workers' compensation claim, dispute, or cause of action arising out of Player's employment with the Club shall be subject to the workers' compensation laws of Ohio exclusively and not the workers' compensation laws of any other state. Player further agrees that any claim, filing, petition, or cause of action in any way relating to workers' compensation rights or benefits arising out of Player's employment with the Club, including without limitation the applicability, or enforceability of this addendum, shall be brought solely and exclusively with the courts of Ohio, the Industrial Commission of Ohio, or such other Ohio tribunal that has jurisdiction over the matter."

The Board pointed out that the contract was not an adhesion contract where the player has little or no ability to negotiate terms more favorable to it. Additionally, the Board pointed out the reasonable nature of requiring the use of an Ohio forum.

The Board's decision does not stand as binding precedent on any other court, or even on the Board's own future decisions. It does, however, provide the NFL and its teams with one piece of evidence they can use in future cases.

This case was specifically raised this past week in Bruce Matthews' own lawsuit against the NFL and the Tennessee Titans over workers compensation. The Court of Appeals is not obligated to accept it, but it stands as a point in the NFL's favor for now.

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NFL Lockout: Owners Looking To Resolve Workers Compensation Issue In Labor Talks

As the NFL labor negotiations enter what most hope will be the home stretch, Chris Mortensen reported on the handful of issues left to be resolved at the bargaining table. One issue the owners are fighting for is resolution to a workers compensation claim system that strongly favors the players. NFL players get injured on the job much like any other employee and they have the opportunity to file for workers compensation. The issue that distresses owners is the ability of retired players to forum-shop in hopes of getting the most money in compensation.

As the situation currently stands, California allows retired players to file claims years after they've retired so long as they played at least one game in the state. California allowed such limited contacts with the state as a way of protecting transient workers like truck drivers. Professional athletes have been able to benefit as well.

Players choose to file in California because the state generally provides higher workers comp benefit payouts than many other states. Additionally, the statute of limitations is longer in California, which means players are filing years after they retired. Given the dated injuries involved it is hard for teams to prove the injury is simply an old-age issue more than an on-field injury.

The fight has ended up in court in recent years with teams arguing the issue should be decided by an arbitrator and not a judge. The state of Florida has even gone so far as to pass legislation preventing claims in other states when a Florida resident is a temporary work in said state. Although Florida Governor Rick Scott is expected to sign the legislation into law, it is a safe bet to expect a court battle over the legality of the law.

In the meantime, the owners and players will look to figure out some way to address this issue. Now that the negotiations are in the final days, each side is throwing Hail Mary's hoping to slide through some final demands. Given how late in the process this issue is coming up, it would not appear to be any sort of deal-breaker. The owners may very well concede it in hopes that more states will attempt to pass legislation similar to that in Florida. Or maybe they'll use it as leverage against the players battle for $320 million in unpaid benefits from 2010. These final few pieces of the puzzle can be mixed and matched to determine the final compromise in the final CBA.

For more on the NFL lockout, keep following this StoryStream.

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