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Washington Redskins Loses to Former Football Players in Workers' Compensation Decisions

Pro footballers and workers' compensation claims were on the mind of the Court of Appeals in August. The state's top court released two decisions, two days apart, favoring claims made by two former Washington Redskins players.

In Pro-Football, Inc., t/a the Washington Redskins, et al. v. Thomas J. Tupa, Jr., the state's top court ruled that former Washington Redskins punter Tom Tupa can collect workers' compensation benefits in Maryland for a back injury that occurred at FedEx Field during warm-ups before a pre-season game in August 2005.

There were two questions before the court: (1) whether the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission should have exercised jurisdiction over the claim when the employment agreement contained a clause providing, among other things, that claims for workers' compensation benefits should be governed by Virginia law and that the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission should have exclusive jurisdiction to resolve such claims and (2) whether injuries occurring while playing and practicing professional football are "accidental injuries" and, as a result, compensable under the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act.

The state's top court rejected the team's argument that Tupa had agreed via the contract to be bound by the workers' compensation laws of Virginia. The Court of Appeals held, relying on case law in many other states, that it could not give effect to a forum selection clause in a workers' compensation case. Maryland law, the court said, plainly forbids an agreement which waives the right of an employee to receive workers' compensation benefits which are otherwise due under the Maryland statute. There is no exception for a forum-selection clause.

Redskins' management and its insurer also argued that Tupa's fall was not a compensable "accidental injury" because injuries are to be expected in the sometimes dangerous sport.

The court dismissed the argument as wrong, relying on a leading legal treatise on workers' compensation. The court also pointed out that the author of the workers' compensation legal authority commented that denying benefits to professional football players effectively denied a class of covered employees compensation for doing the job they were hired to do.

"Tupa's injury occurred 'out of and in the course of [his] employment,'" the court concluded. "He was warming up for a game when he landed awkwardly and thereafter sought immediate medical treatment. Ample evidence was presented to show that Tupa suffered a compensable accidental injury during the course of his employment."

In making the decision, the court also overruled earlier case law. The court noted that a 1983 opinion by the Court of Special Appeals, Rowe v. Baltimore Colts, supported the Redskins' position. But the Court of Special Appeals explicitly reversed Rowe when it ruled for Tupa last year. And, the Court of Appeals agreed with the reversal of law, saying it implicitly decided the same thing in a 2003 case, Harris v. Board of Education.

The case was released August 22, 2012.

In a second loss for the Washington Redskins in a matter of days, the state's top court held that former wide receiver Darnerian McCants was employed primarily in Maryland because that's where the team's home games are played.

McCants played wide receiver for the Redskins from 2002 to 2004. He filed several workers' compensation claims against the Redskins that were denied by the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission on the ground that he was not a covered employee under state law because he was working for the Redskins outside of the state when he sustained the injuries leading to the claims. The Circuit Court for Prince George's County agreed with the commission's decision. However, the state's intermediate appellate court reversed the decision. When the case came before the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals sided with the lower court, deciding that McCants was employed n Maryland and, as a result, covered under Maryland law.

The Workers' Compensation Commission decides claims for individuals who are covered employees. Under Maryland law, a covered employee includes an employee who works within the state, as well as an employee who is regularly employed within the state and works outside of the state on a "casual, incidental or occasional basis."

The Redskins argued that, because the majority of McCants' work took place in Virginia, he was not covered under Maryland workers' compensation laws. The Redskins said that McCants' employment with the team mostly consisted of game practice, getting in shape for games and viewing of films - all of which took place in Virginia.

But, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the team, handing the Redskins a loss. A football player employed by the Redskins who plays football games at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, but spends the majority of his time at football practice in Ashburn, Virginia, is a covered employee under Maryland law for coverage under workers' compensation law, the court held.

Pro-Football, Inc. t/a The Washington Redskins, et al v. Darnerien McCants was released on August 23, 2012.

Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been handling workers' compensation cases for years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation.

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