Foul Ball: Florida Appeals Court Says Detroit Tigers Owe Little to Injured Pitcher

By William Rabb | June 18, 2024

If the Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball team needs money to rebuild its roster next year, a Florida appeals court just saved the team more than $14,000 in workers’ compensation payments to an injured minor league pitcher.

Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals struck out a compensation judge’s decision to award lefty pitcher Austin Sodders indemnity benefits of $349 per week, more than twice as much as Sedgwick Claims Management had argued for. The court said that the comp judge, Robert Arthur, had abused his discretion by skirting statutory requirements and rejecting the terms of the player’s contract.

“The JCC (judge of compensation claims) does not have discretion to reject the contract’s plain language, even where he finds it too ‘stringent,'” the 1st DCA wrote last week. “Nor does the law permit the JCC to supplement the contract’s explicit terms with his own more flexible terms.”

The decision highlights how tricky it can be to calculate the average weekly wage for some part-time or seasonal workers, particularly ballplayers. Florida law has four different subsections that speak to the methods by which wages should be calculated. Sodders had elected not to pursue a seasonal-worker allowance in the law, and two other sections did not apply; that means that the contract and Sodders’ actual, full-time weekly wages should govern, the court said.

“Under section 440.14(1)(d), the claimants’ full-time weekly wages are ‘determined prospectively by using either the contract of employment or the actual earnings on the job where Claimant was working at the time of the injury,'” District Court Judge Robert Long Jr. wrote in the court’s June 12 opinion.

The 6-foot, 4-inch Sodders, out of Riverside, California, was playing for the Detroit Tigers’ Class-A Minor League team in Lakeland, Florida, in 2018, when he injured his throwing shoulder. Until then, he had posted a respectable earned-run average of 2.72, according to Minor League statistics on The Athletic publication called him a top minor league prospect in 2018.

Not long after his injury, though, the Tigers released him. Sodders filed a workers’ compensation claim for temporary total disability. The team paid 70 weeks of benefits at $144 per week, for a total of $10,170. In 2022, Sodders hired well-known claimants’ lawyer Michael Winer, of Tampa, who filed a petition arguing that the team had miscalculated the benefits, and the player’s weekly wage amount should be more than doubled, with benefits totaling at least $24,360.

Both sides agreed that the player had been paid $1,500 a month in salary, per a standard, five-month Minor League contract. Sodders and Winer argued that the wage and comp benefits should be based on a full year of pay at the rate of $1,500 per month, producing an average weekly wage of $349.

Sedgwick countered that the player’s five-month total should be spread over a year to determine a fair weekly pay: $1,500 per month multiplied by five months and divided by 52 weeks equals $144.

Florida compensation judges in at least two previous baseball cases, for a Chicago White Sox player in 1996 and a Houston Astros player in 2012, had followed that same reasoning, Sedgwick attorney Michelle Langlois noted in her response to Sodder’s request for an adjustment to his benefits. Otherwise, it would be produce a windfall for the injured worker.

“The methodology suggested by claimant in his petition for benefits results in annual temporary partial disability benefits that far exceed his total annual earnings,” Langlois wrote.

The comp judge, Arthur, wrote that his reading of Sodders’ contract was that it was not, in fact, for a five-month period and that it required the player to be available for year-round events, including winter-league baseball. The player’s wage calculation should also include his potential earnings from an off-season job, along with a signing bonus.

“The wages which the claimant was prevented from earning during that period were not his wages as a baseball player, as his contract had been terminated on August 7, 2019, but were wages that could have been earned on the open labor market,” Judge Arthur said.

The claimant “should not be restricted by the stringent terms of the minor league baseball contract under which he played, which limited the payments of salary to the championship season, despite its control over the claimant’s activities for the entire year,” the comp judge noted.

The fairest and most reasonable way to calculate the average weekly wage is to simply divide the monthly salary by 4.3 (weeks in a month) for a base wage of $349, the judge said. Otherwise, the employer gains a windfall. He also awarded attorney fees to Winer.

But the appellate judges disagreed, noting that the statute requires the wage to be based on the contract, which appears to limit pay to the playing season, or “actual earnings” in the job in which he was working at the time of the injury. The contract did obligate the pitcher to some year-round commitments, but it also allowed him to seek employment during the offseason.

“Had Sodders earned income from other sources during the off-season, he could have included those amounts here. However, he had not earned other income through any off-season employment, and he did not elect calculation under this subdivision,” the DCA opinion reads.

The appeals court acknowledged that judges of compensation claims have broad discretion in determining a fair weekly wage amount. “But that discretion is not unfettered,” the court noted.

When interpreting contracts to determine the parties’ rights and responsibilities, the comp judge “cannot reform contracts or effect a remedy not provided’ by state law, the appellate judges said.

The DCA remanded the case to the comp judge to reset Sodders’ benefits based on the lower average weekly wage.

Sodders is now director of client solutions at a brand management and marketing firm for utility companies, based in Texas, according to his Linkedin page.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.