For over 30 years, retired professional athletes have been receiving workers’ compensation awards from the California court system. Some of the athletes, in fact a good amount, only played a few games in the actual state of California, despite filing claims there and receiving settlements. An odd provision of California’s workers’ compensation laws allows professional athletes to seek payments for the cumulative effects of injuries sustained over the years of playing. However, California lawmakers are now working to amend what they call a broken system by banning professional athletes from pursuing workers’ compensation claims in California when they have only played a few games in the state during their careers.
Since the early 1980s, sports leagues and insurers have paid approximately $747 million dollars to athletes in workers’ comp claims in California. Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, got a $199,000 settlement for injuries related to football. This came despite the fact Davis was on the roster of a Colorado team (Denver Broncos) and played just nine times in the state of California during Davis’ 88-game career. Among other sports stars receiving settlements were NBA star Moses Malone, who was awarded $155,000, and Dallas Cowboys famed wide receiver Michael Irvin, who received $249,000.
The benefits usually come as lump-sum settlements but sometimes provide lifetime medical services. On top of this, California also offers a longer window for filing claims than most states.
However, California lawmakers, with the support of the professional leagues and insurers, have sought to close what they call a “loophole” in the worker’s compensation laws. The proposed bill would ban retired athletes from seeking workers’ compensation benefits from California courts after they’ve played relatively few games in California stadiums and arenas during their careers. However, athletes for teams located in California would not be barred based on the new bill.
Furthermore, the bill would only affect the five major sports: hockey, football, basketball, soccer, and baseball. In addition, the bill would bar the filing of claims for cumulative trauma, caused by years of stress and pounding on a body that comes along with everyday play of the sport (as opposed to very specific injuries-broken bones, etc., which are not covered), unless a player worked at least ninety days in California during the year prior to seeking their workers’ comp claim.
The players’ unions and players have raised strong objections to the new bill. The argument from the players and their lawyers hones in on the fact players have short careers and end up with costly debilitating injuries as a result of their play. According to those on the players’ side of the argument, league benefit packages are incapable of sufficiently covering these costs.
NFL players were already dealt a blow to their ability to seek workers’ comp in California when an arbitration award barred the players from seeking worker’s comp in California and also forced players with current claims to withdraw them. Over 60 of the players affected by the arbitration decision have filed a complaint in federal court to have the arbitration decision overturned.
All in all, it will be an interesting year in California as far as workers’ compensation law goes. If the bill fails, out-of-state retired athletes can still seek haven in California’s workers’ comp laws. If the bill succeeds in changing the law, those athletes will have to seek recovery somewhere else.