8 Oct

Monumental Shift in California’s Workers’ Compensation Framework for Professional Athlete Claims

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On October 8, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that changes the workers’ compensation playing field for professional athletes nationwide.  The new law is a substantial victory for California employers, and it deals a major blow to many out-of-state claimants who would have otherwise qualified for California’s generous workers’ compensation benefits.

California allows workers’ compensation for two types of injuries: “specific” injuries that stem from a single incident, and “cumulative” injuries that result from repetitive, mentally or physically traumatic activity.  Since 1993, more than 7,500  former football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer players have filed California workers’ compensation claims against their former, non-California teams.  Over two-thirds of these claims were made by former football players, most alleging cumulative brain trauma.

The new law, Labor Code section 3600.5(c), exempts all out-of-state baseball, basketball, football, ice hockey, and soccer players and their employers from California workers’ compensation scheme unless certain conditions are met. The new law also confirms the athlete’s home state’s workers’ compensation scheme shall be the athlete’s exclusive remedy against his or her former employer. Thus, to qualify for California’s workers’ compensation, out-of-state professional athletes must navigate a series of requirements.  As a threshold matter, for both specific and cumulative injuries, an athlete must have spent at least 20% of the 365 days immediately preceding his or her last day of employment working within California.  For cumulative injuries, athletes must satisfy two more conditions:

(1) they must have played two or more seasons for a California team or played at least 20% of their career for a California team; and

(2) they must have played fewer than seven seasons for an out-of-state team. This new standard, argued as a “reasonable standard to close an expensive loophole unique to California,” will prove substantially more difficult for out-of-state professional athlete claimants to fulfill.

Assembly Bill 1309 passed through the state legislature with minimal opposition, though the final version of the bill included a claims qualification threshold substantially below that originally called for. The intent of the new law is to curb the targeted filing of workers’ compensation claims by out-of-state professional athletes, many of whom were never employed in California, and some of whom never took to the playing field while visiting California. Such claims ultimately result in California businesses funding the lion’s share of worker’s compensation claims, regardless of origin. Players and players’ unions desperately advocated for California to continue offering workers’ compensation benefits to out-of-state claimants without raising the threshold for such claims.  After all, California was the last frontier for most athletes to make cumulative trauma claims. In the end, the new law brings California into line with the majority of state workers’ compensation schemes.

The bill is retroactive to September 15, 2013. All claims filed by out-of-state athletes before September 15, 2013 will be processed and awarded under the former law.

If you have any questions regarding this change in California law or would like assistance related to a specific athlete’s workers’ compensation eligibility, please call or email Mike O’Connor at Andrews Lagasse Branch + Bell. Sports and Entertainment Group Bio