State Senate passes bill limiting pro teams’ workers’ comp liability

SACRAMENTO — An effort by the National Football League and owners of other professional sports teams to limit workers’ compensation claims by out-of-state athletes is close to final passage in the California Legislature.

The measure cleared the state Senate on Friday on a 34-2 vote. In May, it passed the Assembly, 61-4.

The latest version of the bill is expected to win final passage next week in the Assembly and be on the governor’s desk shortly after the scheduled Sept. 13 legislative recess.

Because of its liberally interpreted workplace-injury laws, California has become the de facto forum of last resort for so-called cumulative trauma claims, including head injuries, by retired players. Many of them may have participated in just a handful of games in California over the course of their careers.

The crackdown on a workers’ compensation claims by athletes has been the focus of a major lobbying campaign by the National Football League and other pro-sports franchises. Former athletes have filed more than 4,400 claims involving head and brain injuries since 2006.


Claims by athletes represent an estimated potential $1-billion liability for the NFL alone, though they represent only a tiny percentage of all California workers’ compensation cases

The bill, AB 1309 by Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), does not affect players who spent their careers with California-based football, baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer teams.

However, it bans claims from athletes who played for California teams for less than two seasons. It also bans those who played for California teams at least two seasons but spent seven or more seasons with non-California teams.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not indicated whether he would sign the bill.

The bill’s lopsided victory in the state Senate provides evidence of the persuasive powers of the sports leagues’ successful effort to flood the Capitol with squads of lobbyists.

Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the measure’s “floor jockey” in the Senate, stressed that the overhaul sets standards “to ensure that California’s workers’ compensation system is no longer unjustly burdened and exploited by professional athletes from virtually every state in America.”

But Hill’s arguments didn’t sway his colleague Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood), who noted that workers’ compensation insurance is completely funded by employers, not taxpayers. For example, any successful claim filed in California by a retired player for the Pittsburgh Steelers would be paid by the Steelers’ owners and would have no economic effect on any California employer.

The bill, Wright charges, amounts to a financial boon for team owners.

“If there was a risk to California, I would be supportive,” he said. “But what we’re talking about today is whether we give the owners a pass on the players who played many years for their teams.”

Wright was one of just two senators to vote against AB 1309. He was joined by Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel).

For his part, the leader of the Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), praised the measure as “an imperfect but, I believe, fair compromise.” Amendments that Steinberg helped craft eliminated a retroactive provision that “would have wiped out thousands of claims.”

The bill, if signed into law, would become effective as of Sept. 15.

Twitter: @marclifsher