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A former defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings failed to show that over-the-counter painkillers provided to him by the team were sufficient to show an acceptance of responsibility for his later-diagnosed head injury, the Supreme Court of Minnesota held Wednesday.
In Noga vs. Minnesota Vikings Football Club and Travelers Group, the Minnesota high court reversed a workers compensation court of appeals determination that former football player Alapati Noga was entitled to permanent and total disability benefits, holding that his claim is barred by the statute of limitations.
Mr. Noga played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1988 until 1992. In 2015, he filed a workers compensation claim for benefits stemming from disabling repetitive and cumulative head trauma, known in Minnesota workers compensation as a Gillette injury, that he said culminated on his last day with the Vikings on Dec. 1, 1992. In 1993, he played one year with the Washington Redskins, and in 1994 played for the Indianapolis Colts, after which his contract was not renewed. He then played in the Arena Football League until 1999.
While playing for the Vikings, Mr. Noga sustained a number of orthopedic injuries that kept him from playing games periodically, and he also experienced head injuries and headaches. On occasions when Mr. Noga had a headache after sustaining a hit, he would talk to the team trainers and doctors, who would dispense Advil and Tylenol for his headaches.
He filed his first workers comp claim in 2001 for orthopedic injuries, and a 2004 physician visit stemming from that claim listed 10 orthopedic and two neurological injuries, including “blackout episodes from concussions from football injuries” and “headaches episodes from football injuries.”
In 2007, Mr. Noga began to receive Social Security benefits for back, lower body, shoulder and finger injuries, and in 2008 he was diagnosed as legally blind. In January 2011, after an extensive neuropsychological evaluation, a physician concluded that Mr. Noga’s “general intellectual functioning shows a general decline from previous functioning, with extremely low verbal memory and problem solving/organization” meeting the diagnosis for dementia, with “multiple head trauma” indicated as an important factor in its cause.
On April 8, 2016, a workers compensation judge granted Mr. Noga benefits, finding that as of Jan. 1, 2013, Mr. Noga was permanently and totally disabled as a result of a Gillette injury that culminated around Dec. 1, 1992, and entitled to the maximum compensation rate. The Vikings and its insurer appealed to the Workers Compensation Court of Appeals, and after first remanding part of the decision, the WCAA held affirmed the compensation judge’s ruling in a 3-2 decision.
The Vikings appealed, arguing that WCCA erred in concluding that Mr. Noga suffered a Gillette injury as a direct result of working for the Vikings, that the 2004 doctor’s report did not provide the team with sufficient notice of his injury and that the statute of limitations barred Mr. Noga’s claim.
The Supreme Court of Minnesota held that Mr. Noga’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Under Minnesota law, an action or proceeding to recover compensation must occur within three years after the employer has made written report of the injury to the commissioner but not to exceed six years from the date of the accident.
Neither the Vikings nor Mr. Noga contested the compensation judge’s implicit determination that the statute of limitations began to run in 2004 with the physician’s report describing neurological issues, but Mr. Noga argued that the “proceeding” exception to the statute of limitations applied.
The court noted that when an employer assumes responsibility for the benefits that may be due an employee for a work-related injury — such as by paying an employee’s work-related hospital or medical bills — that acceptance of responsibility may constitute a “proceeding” that avoids or tolls the statute of limitations. However, the court did not agree with Mr. Noga’s contention that doling out over-the-counter pain medication constituted as a “proceeding” to satisfy the statute of limitations.
The court concluded that evidence in the record did not support the conclusion that the Vikings had assumed liability for Mr. Noga’s eventual Gillette injury of dementia because nothing suggests, at the time the Vikings provided care to Mr. Noga, that the team knew or should have known that he would develop such an injury.
Attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for 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.