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Athletes cash in on California's workers' comp

Over the last three decades, California's workers' compensation system has awarded millions of dollars in benefits for job-related injuries to thousands of professional athletes.

February 23, 2013|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times

Even though he played only about 20 times in the state over his professional career, he received a $160,000 award from a California workers' compensation judge plus future medical benefits, according to his lawyer. The Saints are appealing the judgment.

"After you've played 10 or 12 years ... you've got the body of a 60-year-old man," Conwell said in a recent interview. "You want to make sure you will be able to function as you get older."

At the center of this dispute is California's employer-funded, $12-billion workers' compensation system, created a century ago to help victims of on-the-job injuries. Anyone who is employed in California for any period of time can be eligible for benefits to pay for medical expenses and compensate for work-related disabilities.

In recent years, many California workers' compensation judges have held that any athlete who plays professional sports in the state — no matter how briefly — is eligible to receive benefits from employers for so-called cumulative trauma injuries. And because all these leagues have teams in the state, most of their athletes play in California, at least occasionally.

Encouraged by a small group of workers' compensation lawyers who specialize in athletes' cases, Conwell and other players seek benefits in California because it offers "a large payday at the end of a career," said Todd Davis, vice president for legal affairs for the St. Louis Rams. "California is very jurisdictionally friendly, and in theory, they can collect more money in California than they could in other states and actually double-dip," he said.

Team owners accuse players of exploiting a legal "loophole" that allows out-of-state retirees to wait years before submitting cumulative trauma claims. Not only are the claims expensive, owners say, but they also hurt California workers by clogging court calendars; furthermore, they could contribute to higher insurance bills for all California employers because more claims leads to higher rates.

Legislation in Sacramento being drafted by team owners would not limit the ability of athletes for the Los Angeles Lakers, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and other in-state teams to seek cumulative trauma benefits under California law. However, it would protect those teams from being hit by big claims from out-of-state players, who might have spent just a few weeks at a training camp with a California team at some point in their careers. A legislator to sponsor the bill is expected to be named next week.

Players counter that owners are looking for ways to boost profits by eliminating or restricting financial assistance that severely injured ex-athletes need to manage pain and remain mobile.

They note that they pay California state income taxes on earnings for every game they play in the state, and every one of those matches takes its toll on their bodies. Those taxes could be significant, considering that the average professional player's salary last year was $5.2 million in basketball, $3.2 million in baseball, $2.4 million in hockey and $1.9 million in football.

"I played 15-plus games in California, almost a full season. I never had any easy ones," said retired offensive lineman Pete Kendall, 39, who has a claim pending in the state. Kendall played most recently with the Washington Redskins, and earlier with the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.

High passion on both sides of the issue might prompt California legislators to stay out of the way and instead urge the teams and players to work out their problems through collective bargaining.

"The actual answer to this problem is not a state-by-state decision," suggested Frank Neuhauser, executive director of the Center for the Study of Social Insurance at UC Berkeley. "The leagues should negotiate with the players associations to resolve how to handle these cases in the future.... The players need coverage for these diseases that they got playing for teams that made billions of dollars."

Aaron Jones, a former defensive end and tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots from 1988 to 1995, said compensation he won in California helps pay ongoing medical expenses. Jones, 46, said he suffers ailments including heart problems, migraine headaches, a bad back, sore wrists, ankles, elbows and "you name it."

"Without full medical," he said, "I'd probably be six feet under right now."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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