Professional athletes seeking to take advantage of California’s historically-beneficial workers’ compensation scheme suffered back-to-back defeats to close out 2013.  Even as public attention to the long-term effects of cumulative injuries to professional athletes has increased, recent developments in both California’s legislature and courts have drastically limited the ability of athletes of visiting teams from collecting disability benefits for injuries they claim were suffered within the state.

California’s workers’ compensation scheme has historically permitted out-of-state athletes to bring claims in the state if they could show that their disability resulted from a cumulative injury and that playing in California, even on a limited basis, contributed to that injury.  With the recent rise in medical awareness of traumatic brain injuries in retired athletes, the policy became something of a lifeline for thousands of retired professional athletes suffering the effects of repeated concussions and other debilitating injuries.  According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 3,400 former NFL players filed workers’ compensation claims in California claiming head and brain injuries since 2006.1

But greater awareness of these injuries has also led professional sports teams and leagues to aggressively challenge the players’ ability to recover benefits under California’s scheme.  In a landmark 2012 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a longtime NFL player, Bruce Matthews, could not maintain a cumulative trauma claim in California despite playing 13 times in the state over the course of his 19-year playing career.2  The court held that Matthews failed to allege any specific or discrete injury occurring in California and that his claim of cumulative injury over the course of his career did not make it clear that he was “within the category of employees to whom California extends workers’ compensation coverage.”  Another suit brought by dozens of former NFL players in the Northern District of California challenging an arbitration order that barred the players from seeking workers’ compensation in the state was settled in July 2013.

Then, in October 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a controversial measure that precludes athletes who did not play a significant portion of their careers for a California team from qualifying for disability benefits in the state.  The law, AB 1309, was subject to more than a year of intense lobbying from the NFL and other professional sports leagues seeking to minimize their financial exposure for injuries incurred by athletes on the playing field.  Under the law, athletes are required to have spent at least two complete seasons, or at least 20% of their careers, playing for a California team to be eligible for workers’ compensation in the state.  In addition, players who played seven or more seasons for teams outside the state are not allowed to bring claims at all, even if those athletes also played in California for two or more seasons.  The law applies to all claims brought after September 15, 2013 and covers major and minor league athletes playing professional football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and soccer.

State legislators said the tighter restrictions will prevent California from being unfairly targeted by out-of-state athletes.  Opponents of the law argue that it allows the leagues and their franchises to avoid liability for thousands of serious claims, including many involving cumulative injuries like head and brain trauma.  But, despite opposition from organized labor in the state, AB 1309 generated little resistance among lawmakers, with only five legislators voting against the measure.  

Most recently, in December 2013, the Second Appellate District Court ruled in Federal Insurance Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board3 that a retired women’s professional basketball player, Adrienne Johnson, could not collect a workers’ compensation award under the cumulative trauma theory for a 2003 knee injury that ultimately ended her playing career.  Johnson played only one game in California during the 2003 season, and the court concluded that the state’s tenuous relationship to Johnson’s injury was insufficient to make her application reasonable.  As the court held, “A single basketball game played by a professional player does not create a legitimate interest in injuries that cannot be traced factually to one game.” 

Johnson played the entire 2003 season for the Connecticut Sun, but an MRI following the season revealed a knee injury that required surgery.  Although she signed with a new team for the 2005 season, Johnson ultimately did not play in any professional games following her surgery.  Johnson’s disability claim was based on chronic conditions related to ongoing discomfort in her knee, hip and shoulder, which she claimed resulted from the knee injury sustained during her playing career.   

The court, overturning a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), determined that, for purposes of California law on cumulative trauma, Johnson’s injury did not arise until after July 20, 2003, the date of her only game in California.  The court continued that “[t]he effects of participating in one of 34 games do not amount to a cumulative injury warranting the invocation of California law” and that, unless the injury could be factually traced to that single game, California did not have a legitimate interest in Johnson’s injuries.  Therefore, the court concluded, “The effect of the California game on the injury is at best de minimis.” 

The court then reviewed Johnson’s other possible contacts with California, including her employment relationship and her state of residence.  The court determined that none of these possible contacts had any relationship to California.  During her playing career, Johnson lived in Florida and New Jersey and was living in Kentucky when she brought her workers’ compensation claim.  For these reasons, the court concluded that “California does not have a sufficient relationship with Johnson’s injuries to make the application of California’s workers’ compensation law reasonable.”

The court’s decision was contrary to other WCAB rulings cited by Johnson, including a case involving a WNBA coach, which have held that a limited number of games in California created sufficient contact with the state to apply its law.  Although the court acknowledged these decisions, it disposed of them as not binding.  At first blush, the ruling also seemed to contradict a 2001 appellate ruling that California law applied to the claims of a retired NFL player who had played only one game in California during his career.4  In that case, however, the player had identified a specific injury suffered in California alongside his claim for cumulative trauma. 

The passage of AB 1309 and the Federal Insurance Co. decision impact different classes of athletes.  The new law substantially raises the bar for all athletes hoping to recover disability benefits in California going forward.  For in-state players, even one season played in California will be insufficient to sustain a cumulative trauma claim.  Meanwhile, players who enjoyed long careers for teams located outside the state are barred from bringing claims completely, even if they played multiple games per season in the state.  The Federal Insurance Co. decision, on the other hand, affects retired athletes who played for visiting teams and have pending claims under the prior law.  The case establishes a negative precedent for athletes with limited contacts to the state who seek to rely on the cumulative trauma theory to support their disability claims.  More broadly, these developments represent an undeniable setback for all professional athletes, whether past, present or future, as injured athletes will undoubtedly find it more difficult, if not impossible, to benefit from what was once considered the most athlete-friendly workers’ compensation scheme in the nation.