At a time when the NFL and NFLPA agree on pretty much nothing, it’s no surprise that they likewise don’t agree on the meaning of the recent federal appeals court decision issued in the workers’ compensation case of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews.
The players paint the ruling as a win, since it trumps “choice of forum” language in contracts that purports to restrict workers’ compensation claims only to the states in which the players’ teams are located.
The league likewise claims victory, based on the notion that the ruling blocks players from filing “cumulative trauma” claims in California. As one source explained it, few players file claims for injuries actually suffered in California. Instead, they file claims based on a career’s worth of minor injuries that result, over time, in real impairment — and they justify filing in California on the basis that, at some point during their careers, they practiced or played in California.
Both are likely accurate; victory often depends on how the contest is defined. The union wanted to invalidate the “choice of forum” clauses, and the union succeeded. The league wanted to block “cumulative trauma” claims in California, and the league succeeded.
Moving forward, the question becomes whether and to what extent the union will police the practice of team record keeping regarding injuries. The league’s 32 franchises now have a clear incentive to resolve any ambiguity regarding when and where an injury occurred by taking the position that it happened nowhere within the borders of the Golden State.
And that will be the next frontier in the ongoing workers’ compensation battles. Players will try to argue that injuries occurred in California, and the league will try to prove that they didn’t.