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Pro sports leagues win legislative round on workers' comp

California Assembly Insurance panel approves a bill to limit the ability of out-of-state players to file for workers' comp benefits.

April 24, 2013|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — A full-court press by professional sports leagues to limit the ability of out-of-state players to file for workers' compensation benefits in California scored big in a crucial first vote by state lawmakers.

A bill, backed by the owners of 16 California teams, including basketball's Los Angeles Lakers, baseball's Dodgers, hockey's Kings and soccer's Galaxy, passed out of the Assembly Insurance Committee with a unanimous 11-0 tally over objections from players and labor unions. The measure now heads to the full Assembly for debate and a vote.

"Why should California be the workers' compensation forum for every professional athlete in America?" asked committee Chairman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), the author of the bill, AB 1309.

At issue is team owners' contentions that out-of-state athletes, who may have played only a few games in California, are taking advantage of a peculiarity in the Golden State's workers' compensation law. The alleged loophole allows often long-retired pros to get benefits for so-called cumulative trauma injuries acquired over years of pounding on football and soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball diamonds and hockey rinks.

California has become a magnet for such claims that are not linked to a specific injury, such as a torn tendon or broken bone, caused by a specific incident during a game or practice, bill supporters said. What's more, many of the claims are filed years after a player retires because of California workers' compensation judges' liberal interpretation of the statute of limitations.

"This is about closing a loophole that out-of-state players are using to cash in on generous benefits that California provides," testified Andrew Govenar, a lobbyist for the National Football League.

Claims filed in California workers' compensation courts by athletes from teams outside California have grown exponentially since the mid-2000s and are clogging up some local dockets and putting pressure on insurance companies to raise rates on all types of employers, Govenar argued. A study commissioned by the professional sports leagues estimated that the out-of-state players' claims could cause a 1.3% rise in California employers' workers' compensation premiums across the board, Govenar said.

Although the bill targets one — albeit glamorous — class of workers, some labor leaders fear it could set a dangerous precedent. The worry is that it could be extended to truck drivers, salespeople and others whose jobs take them to California and other states.

"There is a slippery slope of who is going to be next," said Angie Wei, legislative director for the California Labor Federation.

Players for pro sports said their claims have no effect on California taxpayers since claims are paid by team owners or their insurance companies. They noted that all sports except baseball have caps on athletes' salaries that include the pro-rata cost of an individual's workers' compensation coverage.

Chad Brown, who spent 15 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks before retiring from the NFL in 2007, stressed that he paid more than $100,000 in state income taxes for the games he played in California during his career. Doctors have diagnosed him with a 74% disability because of his cumulative trauma injuries, said Brown, who currently has a workers' comp claim pending.

"All I'm asking is for this committee to consider allowing professional sports workers a forum to be heard for workers' compensation claims," he said.

But California should not be penalized because it offers richer workers' compensation benefits than other states," Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) said.

"I don't think California should be the catch-all for deficiencies in other states," she said. "That's neither wise nor affordable."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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