With the start of the NFL’s 99th season barely a month away, today we tackle how workers compensation applies to cumulative injuries on the field that later result in disability.
In a recently published decision, the California Court of Appeal rejected former defensive tackle Larry Tripplett’s attempt to get California workers compensation for cumulative trauma (CT) he sustained during his playing career from 2002-2008. Tripplett spent the first four years with the Indianapolis Colts. He played only two of 110 games in his career in California.
To get workers compensation in California against the Colts for his CT disability, Tripplett had to show either: (1) the Colts hired him in California or (2) his CT ripened into a disability here.
Tripplett and the Colts signed Tripplett’s contract in Indiana. That Tripplett’s agent had negotiated Tripplett’s deal from Newport Beach, said the appellate court, did not show Tripplett was hired here because Tripplett retained the right to reject any contract his agent negotiated.
The court also found that it didn’t matter that injuries from Tripplett’s two games in California may have contributed to his disability. Under California law, cumulative injuries occur when those injuries ripen into a disability or when the employee knew or should have known the disability resulted from his current or prior employment. Tripplett’s CT ripened into a disability in retirement.
But why did Tripplett apply for workers compensation in California at all? And why did dozens of sports leagues and teams successfully petition the Court of Appeal to publish this ruling so it could be cited in future cases?
Tripplett’s attorney did not respond to my email inquiry. The attorney for the Colts’ workers compensation insurer did. Melissa Amitrano, a certified workers compensation specialist with Pearlman, Brown & Wax, explained that California is among the few states that award workers compensation for cumulative workplace injuries, in addition to injury caused by a specific incident. The most familiar form of work-related CT is carpal tunnel syndrome.
According to a December 2016 California Workers’ Compensation Institute report on CT in California workers compensation system, “[s]ome states prohibit CT claims altogether; others impose a higher causation standard or require a higher standard of proof that the cumulative injury occurred at work” than California does. California requires a claimant to show the workplace injury to have contributed only 1 percent to the resulting disability and to show only that it was more likely than not the injury occurred at work.
Moreover, the report’s lead author Stacy Jones told me, the time to submit a CT claim in California may not begin running until a physician tells a claimant for the first time that cumulative injuries are “related to what [the worker] has been doing for the past 15 years.” “Many professional athletes,” said Amitrano, “are advised to elect California as the preferred state to seek compensation benefits. . . . [T]he statute of limitations is liberal, potentially allowing players to file years after retirement if they had no knowledge of their injury or their right to benefits.”
That explains why so many professional leagues and teams wanted the Tripplett opinion published. Amitrano wrote that these leagues “are continually confronted with cumulative trauma claims of injury being filed in California for their prior employees when those employees (like Tripplett) were hired outside of California for an out-of-state employer and the work was predominately performed outside of the state.” Each claim by a professional athlete can run hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That also explains why professional major and minor baseball, basketball, football, ice hockey, and soccer leagues and teams successfully lobbied five years ago for a law generally barring pro athletes in those sports who spend fewer than two years, or less than 20 percent of their career, playing for a California team from claiming California workers compensation. The new law applied only to claims submitted after September 14, 2013 so it did not apply to Tripplett, who first sought benefits in 2009.
A legislative analyst said the 2013 measure was partly aimed at relieving Californians of avoidable increases in workers compensation rates attributable to claims filed against out-of-state teams by athletes who may “have already received workers compensation benefits from other states, as well as employment benefits covering the same losses they are seeking compensation for in California.”
According to Jones, the upshot is a decline in sports-related CT claims even with observable growth in such claims overall.
This article was first published by San Diego Union Tribune.