Under what circumstances may an injured professional athlete employed by team in different state receive California workers' compensation benefits?

December 13, 2013
By Justice Steven Vartabedian (Ret.) on December 13, 2013 6:00 AM |

Recently, public attention has been drawn to out-of-state professional athletes, who have performed at times in California, seeking the benefits of workers' compensation under California law. Several of these cases have now emerged from the appellate courts. One such case is that of Federal Insurance Company v. WCAB and Johnson (filed 12/3/13) B249201. There, the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Five, ruled the state did not have a sufficient interest in the matter to apply its workers' compensation law and retain jurisdiction over the matter.

Adrienne Johnson journeyed to several Women's National Basketball Association teams from 1997 through 2005: teams in the states of Ohio, Florida, Connecticut and Washington. She lived in those states during those times except she resided in New Jersey while playing for the Connecticut Sun franchise. She injured her right knee and Achilles tendon in 1999 while playing for the Orlando Miracle, had surgery in 2000 in Florida, and missed the entire 2001 season. She reinjured her knee in 2003. Through her Ohio-based agent, she signed a 2-year contract in 2003 with Connecticut, and played in 34 games that year. For the next two years she practiced with teams but played in no games. During 2003, she played her only game in California. Later that same year, she received a $30,000 settlement for a workers' compensation claim filed in Connecticut concerning her right knee.

After leaving professional basketball and while working and residing in the state of Kentucky in 2010, Johnson complained of various discomforts in her knee, hip and shoulder. She filed for Workers' Comp benefits against the Sun team in California. She was supported by an agreed medical examiner's opinion that her injuries were chronic, that she suffered from irritable bowel syndrome related to her orthopedic problems, and these injuries at least in part stemmed from her professional basketball playing days with the Sun. The California Workers' Compensation Judge awarded disability indemnity; this ruling was partially rescinded by the WCAB which returned the award to the WCJ for apportionment. Employer Sun and its insurer, Federal Insurance Company petitioned and received a writ of review from the Court of Appeal, contending the California WCAB had no jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal agreed.

The appellate court saw the dispositive issues as whether one or more state compensation laws apply and whether this case is one where California may provide a forum for the claim. The court saw the WCJ's statement that"[p]laying in even one professional basketball game in California is sufficient to establish jurisdiction" as mischaracterizing the controversy. This is more a matter of subject matter jurisdiction than it is one of personal jurisdiction. And a big part of determining whether California law governs is a question of due process. If an employer or insurer is to be subject to this state's workers' comp law, due process requires that the state have sufficient contact with the matter. The U.S. Supreme Court cases of Bradford Electric Light Co. v. Clapper (1932) 286 U.S. 145, and Alaska Packers Assn. v. Industrial Acc. Comm. (1935) 294 U.S. 532 have long supported the principle that the place of the injury as a single factor is insufficient to permit coverage by a state when the employee's presence in the state is temporary.

The court additionally notes the ruling in a recent federal case involving Bruce Matthews who played for 19 years with the Tennessee Titans organization. In Matthews v. National Football League Management Council (9th Cir. 2012) 688F.3d 1107, although Matthews played 13 games during his career in California, he was unable to show any specific injury or medical treatment in California. That he, like Johnson, made a claim of cumulative injuries was insufficient in itself to overcome his employment contract that called for the application of Tennessee law. In Johnson's case, the court found her disability did not arise from her only game played California in July 2003. So the situs of the employment relationship governed here due in large part because California did not have a sufficient relationship with Johnson's injuries; California did not have the power to entertain her claim.

As more of these claims find their way through the courts, it appears then that circumstances of the case, including proof of California's contact with the matter, will govern the case-by-case analysis. Athletes who look to California's comparatively generous compensation for workplace injuries, though, will carry a significant burden of proving the relationship of the injury to activities occurring within California.

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