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Brain injuries a big problem for NFL in California

Former athletes have filed more than 4,400 claims in California since 2006; pro leagues hope workers' comp legislation will stop flood.

August 31, 2013|By Ken Bensinger, Armand Emamdjomeh and Marc Lifsher
  • Conrad Dobler, an all-pro offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals and other teams in the late 1970s, has had nine knee replacements since retirement.
Conrad Dobler, an all-pro offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals… (Conrad Dobler )

By the thousands, professional athletes from around the country are seeking medical care or money through California's workers' compensation system for brain trauma and other injuries suffered on the playing field.

Former athletes have filed more than 4,400 claims involving head and brain injuries since 2006 — seven times more than in the previous 15 years, according to a Times analysis of state records. Nearly three-quarters of all new claims made in California now include alleged brain injuries.

Most of these claims come from former pro football players, brought by superstars such as Joe Theismann, Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell, as well as unheralded practice squad players.

The claims represent a huge financial risk for National Football League teams. Research suggests that repeated head trauma from violent contact can lead to dementia, Parkinson's disease and other incurable conditions. A complete list of claims by football players, culled from millions of filings from the Division of Workers' Compensation, is posted at the L.A. Times' website.

Now the NFL and five other professional sports leagues are close to limiting their liability drastically for such workers' comp claims. They have lobbied for state legislation that would bar athletes who played for out-of-state teams from filing in California.

The state Senate is expected to approve the bill Tuesday; the Assembly already has.

The vote comes on the heels of the NFL's agreement Thursday to pay $765 million to settle hundreds of federal lawsuits by former players who had accused the league of concealing evidence of the long-term danger of concussions.

Many out-of-state athletes file for benefits in California because they cannot do so anywhere else. The statute of limitations is much less restrictive in California than in other states, and injuries suffered over an extended period, including brain trauma, are covered.

Up to now, former players had been eligible to apply for benefits even if they played for out-of-state teams and competed in California only a handful of times during their careers, and have been making such claims for decades.

But officials from the leagues, as well as individual team owners, worry that the long-term costs of caring for gravely ill former players could drive up insurance premiums, eat into profits and force changes in how the games are played.

Together, the six leagues have revenue of about $24 billion a year. Brook Gardiner, a labor lawyer for the NFL, said a study conducted by the league last year found that claims filed in California by football players cost an average of $215,000 each to resolve.

With nearly 4,000 pending claims from former players, the total cost of football-related injuries in California could approach $1 billion, not including athletes who have yet to file.

"It's gone from being a nuisance to an onslaught," Gardiner said.

Conrad Dobler, an all-pro offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals and other teams in the late 1970s, has had nine knee replacements since retirement.

Unable to file in the three states where he played because the statutes of limitation had run out and denied coverage under the NFL's private disability programs, Dobler filed a claim against his former teams in California in 2009.

Last year, after numerous exams, depositions and hearings, Dobler was found to be 99% disabled with numerous injuries including "post-traumatic head syndrome." He was awarded about $120,000 plus lifetime medical care for his injuries from the Buffalo Bills, his last team, state records show.

He said he plans to use the coverage for an operation on an aching shoulder.

"If it wasn't for my settlement in California, I wouldn't be able to get the surgery," said Dobler, who lives in Overland Park, Kan.

Workers' compensation is a system of employer-funded private insurance that offers medical care and monetary awards to injured workers, who in turn give up their right to sue. States administer these programs, determining whether claimed injuries are legitimate and, if so, their degree of severity.

Many pro teams are self-insured and must cover costs arising from successful claims; others purchase workers' comp insurance, which can become more expensive as claims and payouts increase.

Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a coauthor of the NFL-backed legislation, AB 1309, said it was a matter of fairness.

"Our workers' comp system is not supposed to handle other states' workers," he said.

California is one of only a few states that cover "cumulative" injuries — a category of injury incurred over time that includes the most serious types of brain trauma.

The state also requires employers to notify employees of their right to file for benefits for workplace injuries, something sports teams frequently failed to do. As a result, the one-year statute of limitations does not apply to many athletes, some of whom filed claims decades after their careers ended.

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