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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