Calif.’s 9th Circuit Hands Former NFL Player Worker’s Comp Loss

By Don Jergler | August 9, 2012

Retired National Football League offensive lineman Bruce Matthews’ attempt to collect workers’ compensation benefits in California was slapped down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, which ruled he failed to show sufficient contacts with California.

A current offensive line coach of the Tennessee Titans, Matthews played in the NFL for 19 years across three decades, and was selected to 14 pro bowls.

The three-judge panel in Pasadena, Calif. received the case in May, and issued its ruling on the matter late Monday.

Matthews filed for workers’ comp in California because the state’s workers’ comp framework allows retired professional athletes to file claims for long-term injuries in the state because California statute uniquely affords protections to employees on assignment temporarily in the state. The claims are allowed under Section 3600.5(b) of the California Labor Code.

“We hold that Matthews has not alleged sufficient contacts with California to show that his workers’ compensation claim comes within the scope of California’s workers’ compensation regime,” the court ruled in an opinion written by Judge Raymond C. Fisher.

In 2008 Matthews filed a workers’ comp claim in California alleging he suffered pain and disability from injuries incurred during his NFL career. Attorneys for Matthews were asking the 9thCircuit to vacate an arbitration award that prohibited him from pursuing benefits under state law.

His attorneys argued that award violates California public policy barring contractual waiver of workers’ comp benefits and federal labor policy providing that an employment agreement may not preempt state minimum labor standards.

Since Matthews did not show sufficient contacts with California, he has not met the burden of showing the award prohibited him from pursuing California benefits “violates an explicit, well-defined and dominant public policy of the state of California,” the court ruled “Because Matthews has not shown that the award deprives him of something to which he is entitled under state law, he likewise has not shown that it violates federal labor policy.”

Matthews, who retired in 2002, claimed pain and disability while employed by the NFL, playing at various locations over his career.

The Titans and NFL filed a grievance against Matthews arguing that in applying for workers’ comp benefits he breached an employment agreement that provided that all workers’ comp claims must be decided under Tennessee law. That dispute was arbitrated, with a decision going against Matthews. The arbitrator ordered him to cease and desist his efforts to seek California benefits. Later a district court denied a motion by Matthews to vacate the arbitration award.

Among its findings the 9th Circuit court ruled that while Matthews’ teams played 13 games during his career, he did not allege any specific or discrete injury or need for medical services in California, or that he even tried to prove injury in California.

While the court agreed that every game he played may have contributed to his injuries, “it is not clear that, as a matter of California law, this means he falls within the category of employees to whom California extends workers’ compensation coverage,” the court ruled. “The facts underlying Matthews’ claim are distinct enough from existing California cases that we cannot say whether the California courts would consider Matthews’ limited contacts with the state sufficient to justify the application of California law.”

The Houston Oilers drafted Matthews in 1983. He eventually played 296 games and was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

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