Athletes cash in on California’s workers’ comp
SACRAMENTO — In his seven-year career with the Denver Broncos, running back Terrell Davis, a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, dazzled fans with his speed and elusiveness.
At the end of his rookie year in 1995, he signed a $6.8-million, five-year contract. Off the field he endorsed Campbell’s soup. And when he hung up his cleats, he reported for the National Football League Network and appeared in movies and TV shows.
So it may surprise Californians to find out that in 2011, Davis got a $199,000 injury settlement from a California workers’ compensation court for injuries related to football. This came despite the fact Davis was employed by a Colorado team and played just nine times in California during an 88-game career, according to the NFL.
Davis was compensated for the lifelong effects of multiple injuries to the head, arms, trunk, legs and general body, according to California workers’ compensation records.
He is not alone.
Over the last three decades, California’s workers’ compensation system has awarded millions of dollars in benefits for job-related injuries to thousands of professional athletes. The vast majority worked for out-of-state teams; some played as little as one game in the Golden State.
All states allow professional athletes to claim workers’ compensation payments for specific job-related injuries — such as a busted knee, torn tendon or ruptured spinal disc — that happened within their borders. But California is one of the few that provides additional payments for the cumulative effect of injuries that occur over years of playing.
A growing roster of athletes are using this provision in California law to claim benefits. Since the early 1980s, an estimated $747 million has been paid out to about 4,500 players, according to an August study commissioned by major professional sports leagues. California taxpayers are not on the hook for these payments. Workers’ compensation is an employer-funded program.
Now a major battle is brewing in Sacramento to make out-of-state players ineligible for these benefits, which are paid by the leagues and their insurers. They have hired consultants and lobbyists and expect to unveil legislation next week that would halt the practice.
“The system is completely out of whack right now,” said Jeff Gewirtz, vice president of the Brooklyn Nets — formerly the New Jersey Nets — of the National Basketball Assn.
Major retired stars who scored six-figure California workers’ compensation benefits include Moses Malone, a three-time NBA most valuable player with the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and other teams. He was awarded $155,000. Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, formerly with the Dallas Cowboys, received $249,000. The benefits usually are calculated as lump-sum payments but sometimes are accompanied by open-ended agreements to provide lifetime medical services.
Players, their lawyers and their unions plan to mount a political offensive to protect these payouts.
Although the monster salaries of players such as Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning make headlines, few players bring in that kind of money. Most have very short careers. And some, particularly football players, end up with costly, debilitating injuries that haunt them for a lifetime but aren’t sufficiently covered by league disability benefits.
Retired pros increasingly are turning to California, not only because of its cumulative benefits but also because there’s a longer window to file a claim. The statute of limitations in some states expires in as little as a year or two.
“California is a last resort for a lot of these guys because they’ve already been cut off in the other states,” said Mel Owens, a former Los Angeles Rams linebacker-turned-workers’ compensation lawyer who has represented a number of ex-players.
To understand how it works, consider the career of Ernie Conwell. A former tight end for the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints, he was paid $1.6 million for his last season in 2006.
Conwell said that during his 11-year career, he underwent about 18 surgeries, including 11 knee operations. Now 40, he works for the NFL players union and lives in Nashville.
Hobbled by injuries, he filed for workers’ compensation in Louisiana and got $181,000 in benefits to cover his last, career-ending knee surgery in 2006, according to the Saints. The team said it also provided $195,000 in injury-related benefits as part of a collective-bargaining agreement with the players union.
But such workers’ compensation benefits paid by Louisiana cover only specific injuries. So, to deal with what he expects to be the costs of ongoing health problems that he said affect his arms, legs, muscles, bones and head, Conwell filed for compensation in California and won.
Even though he played only about 20 times in the state over his professional career, he received a $160,000 award from a California workers’ compensation judge plus future medical benefits, according to his lawyer. The Saints are appealing the judgment.
“After you’ve played 10 or 12 years ... you’ve got the body of a 60-year-old man,” Conwell said in a recent interview. “You want to make sure you will be able to function as you get older.”
At the center of this dispute is California’s employer-funded, $12-billion workers’ compensation system, created a century ago to help victims of on-the-job injuries. Anyone who is employed in California for any period of time can be eligible for benefits to pay for medical expenses and compensate for work-related disabilities.
In recent years, many California workers’ compensation judges have held that any athlete who plays professional sports in the state — no matter how briefly — is eligible to receive benefits from employers for so-called cumulative trauma injuries. And because all these leagues have teams in the state, most of their athletes play in California, at least occasionally.
Encouraged by a small group of workers’ compensation lawyers who specialize in athletes’ cases, Conwell and other players seek benefits in California because it offers “a large payday at the end of a career,” said Todd Davis, vice president for legal affairs for the St. Louis Rams. “California is very jurisdictionally friendly, and in theory, they can collect more money in California than they could in other states and actually double-dip,” he said.
Team owners accuse players of exploiting a legal “loophole” that allows out-of-state retirees to wait years before submitting cumulative trauma claims. Not only are the claims expensive, owners say, but they also hurt California workers by clogging court calendars; furthermore, they could contribute to higher insurance bills for all California employers because more claims leads to higher rates.
Legislation in Sacramento being drafted by team owners would not limit the ability of athletes for the Los Angeles Lakers, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and other in-state teams to seek cumulative trauma benefits under California law. However, it would protect those teams from being hit by big claims from out-of-state players, who might have spent just a few weeks at a training camp with a California team at some point in their careers. A legislator to sponsor the bill is expected to be named next week.
Players counter that owners are looking for ways to boost profits by eliminating or restricting financial assistance that severely injured ex-athletes need to manage pain and remain mobile.
They note that they pay California state income taxes on earnings for every game they play in the state, and every one of those matches takes its toll on their bodies. Those taxes could be significant, considering that the average professional player’s salary last year was $5.2 million in basketball, $3.2 million in baseball, $2.4 million in hockey and $1.9 million in football.
“I played 15-plus games in California, almost a full season. I never had any easy ones,” said retired offensive lineman Pete Kendall, 39, who has a claim pending in the state. Kendall played most recently with the Washington Redskins, and earlier with the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
High passion on both sides of the issue might prompt California legislators to stay out of the way and instead urge the teams and players to work out their problems through collective bargaining.
“The actual answer to this problem is not a state-by-state decision,” suggested Frank Neuhauser, executive director of the Center for the Study of Social Insurance at UC Berkeley. “The leagues should negotiate with the players associations to resolve how to handle these cases in the future.... The players need coverage for these diseases that they got playing for teams that made billions of dollars.”
Aaron Jones, a former defensive end and tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots from 1988 to 1995, said compensation he won in California helps pay ongoing medical expenses. Jones, 46, said he suffers ailments including heart problems, migraine headaches, a bad back, sore wrists, ankles, elbows and “you name it.”
“Without full medical,” he said, “I’d probably be six feet under right now.”
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