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Three National Football League teams prevailed in a lawsuit brought by former players that alleged the teams intended to injure them by using medications to conceal their injuries and allow them to continue playing while injured.
The lawsuit argued that the underlying claims should be exceptions to workers compensation exclusivity because they were triggered by intentional acts by the teams, team doctors and trainers, according to documents in Etopia Evans, et al. vs. Arizona Cardinals Football Club L.L.C., et al.
The ruling handed down Friday puts an end to a larger case that included claims by 13 former professional football players against all 32 NFL football clubs alleging misuse of painkillers and other drugs. Judge William Alsup, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, dismissed the majority of those claims in May but allowed three claims brought by two former players to proceed.
Reggie Walker, who played linebacker from 2009 to 2015, sued the San Diego Chargers, saying the team’s doctors used Toradol injections to treat an ankle sprain he sustained in 2014. Mr. Walker continued to play following the injury, and he said he continues to experience ankle pain, according to court documents.
Alphonso Carreker, a defensive end who played for nine seasons, sued the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers, saying he regularly consumed “enormous quantities” of anti-inflammatory drugs during his career that resulted in a resistance to those drugs. Mr. Carreker underwent heart surgery in 2013 to fix inflammation in his heart stemming from an infection that resulted from this resistance, according to court records.
Both men alleged the clubs misrepresented that they cared about and prioritized player health and safety when they actually prioritized getting players to return to play, even when injured, at the cost of their health and safety. The three teams moved for summary judgment, saying all three remaining claims are barred by workers comp exclusive remedy.
Mr. Walker’s claims fall within workers comp exceptions for aggravation of injury and fraud claims under California Labor Code, which provides that exclusivity does not bar a claim of relief “where the employee’s injury is aggravated by the employer’s fraudulent concealment of the existence of the injury and its connection with the employment,” according to the lawsuit. But the judge noted this exception is extremely limited and requires proof that the employer knew of an employee’s work-related injury, concealed the knowledge from the employee and the injury was aggravated due to that concealment.
“The exception does not apply if Walker was aware of the injury at all times,” the judge ruled. “To lose the protection of workers’ compensation exclusivity, the Chargers must have concealed knowledge of Walker’s underlying work-related injury from him and aggravated said injury as a result. On this point, plaintiffs have not shown any genuine dispute of material fact in their favor.”
Mr. Walker also charged that the team “acted deliberately with the specific intent to injure” by providing dangerous medications without providing information or warnings. However, the court ruled that this exception applies to willful physical assaults and the evidence in this case does not suggest that the employer intended to injure the employee.
In Mr. Carreker’s case against the Denver Broncos, the judge ruled that workers comp exclusivity applies because the injury occurred in the course of and within the scope of employment under Colorado case law.
In Mr. Carreker’s case against the Green Bay Packers, the judge noted that Wisconsin workers comp law provides an assault exception to exclusive remedy when an injury is caused by a co-worker. However, Mr. Carreker failed to prove this point because he sued the team rather than team doctors and trainers, who could be characterized as co-workers, and he made no argument that the team assaulted him, according to court records.
“Although workers’ compensation and collective bargaining remedies are not gold-plated remedies, they are at least remedies recognized under the law,” the judge said. “The sweeping remedy sought herein by plaintiffs is not, on this record, available under the law.”
Representatives from the NFL teams and players were not immediately available to comment.
Thirty-eight former professional football players are suing the National Football League for workers compensation due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a lifelong and debilitating brain injury caused by repeated head trauma.