Judge orders former Atlanta Falcons players to seek Georgia workers’ comp benefits

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Back in March of this year, the Atlanta Falcons and the NFL brought suit against several former football players in a move to block them from filing for workers’ compensation benefits in the state of California. A twenty-page ruling in that case this week found against the players, and mandates that they must seek compensation here in the state of Georgia.

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Former Falcons Roderick Coleman, Wilrey Fontenot, Tony Gilbert, Kindal Moorehead, Stanley Pritchett, Karon Riley, Brett Romberg, Jason Webster and Dez White each played for the team sometime between 2002 and 2010. They claimed that they had sustained injuries from various Falcon games, including some played in California.

Typically pro football players who are injured while playing are entitled to workers’ comp benefits while out of work. Medical expenses arising from that injury are covered. NFL clubs won’t pay medical expenses after a player leaves the game, however, unless the player has a standing workers’ compensation claim.

That’s where California comes in. Hundreds of former NFL players are presently in litigation over claims that they filed in California, even though their teams are based elsewhere in the U.S. This is because California is the only state where professional athletes who’ve played as little as a single game in that state can file workers’ comp claims for long-term injuries that were sustained years prior. Players from the Cincinnati Bengals, the Denver Broncos, the Tennessee Titans, the Miami Dolphins, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints have also filed claims in California.

Attorneys representing the NFL have pushed back, highlighting the fact that this battle is about whether or not and in what manner former players should be compensated for on-field injuries. Attorneys have taken the players’ claims to arbitration in an attempt to enforce the owners’ argument that player contracts require them to file claims in the states where their teams are located and the players are contractually obligated. If arbitration decisions aren’t complied with, the NFL is seeking federal judgments to back them up.

That’s what happened in Atlanta Falcons v. The National Football League Association, No. 1:12-CV-753 (N.D. Ga.). The Falcons franchise and the National Football League Management Council initiated arbitration and argued that the former players’ contracts were subject to Georgia workers’ compensation law. They noted that all home games and practices occur at the Falcons’ Georgia headquarters and that only four of their 186 games during the years in question were played in California. In February of this year, the arbitrator barred the players from bringing claims under California workers’ comp law. The club and the NFLMC made moves to confirm the award in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

In response, the players asked the court to vacate the award, which they claimed violated state and federal public policy. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash found out that the contract provision requiring players to seek benefits in Georgia didn’t violate Georgia public policy. Thrash found that the players had extensive contacts in Georgia and very few in California. In rejected the claim that the award violated California public policy, he noted that players never proved they were injured in California, where only 2% of Falcons games were played.

The award has no bearing on the Falcons’ obligations under Georgia workers’ compensation law; neither does it allow players to receive benefits exceeding the total provided by Georgia law.

Prior to the decision in the Falcons case, players from the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs had their claims kicked back to their respective states by federal judges, as well.



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