WCAB Refuses to Exercise Jurisdiction Over NFL Player's Work Comp Claim

Publish Date:Jan 25, 2013
Summary:
In an en banc decision handed down on January 15, 2013, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) refused to exercise jurisdiction over an Arizona Cardinal football player’s workers’ compensation claim because the player had signed employment contracts with the Cardinals which provided that claims for workers’ compensation were to be filed in Arizona.
In an en banc decision handed down on January 15, 2013, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) refused to exercise jurisdiction over an Arizona Cardinal football player’s workers’ compensation claim because the player had signed employment contracts with the Cardinals which provided that claims for workers’ compensation were to be filed in Arizona.

Dennis McKinley played professional football for four years with the National Football League’s (NFL) Arizona Cardinals. His three employment contracts with the Cardinals stated, “Claims for workers’ compensation shall be filed with the Industrial Commission of Arizona.” During his four years with the Cardinals, McKinley played a total of 80 games; seven of those games were played in California. McKinley also participated in a five-day training camp in California. 

McKinley filed a workers’ compensation claim in California, alleging he suffered work-related injuries to multiple body parts as a result cumulative injury incurred while playing and practicing for the Cardinals.

The workers’ compensation judge dismissed the claim based on the forum selection clause in his contracts. The WCAB affirmed the judge’s action.

The WCAB concluded that it had the authority to determine whether it is the proper forum to adjudicate McKinley’s claim. The WCAB declined to exercise jurisdiction in view of McKinley’s “limited connection with California, and in light of the Arizona forum that [McKinley] and the Cardinals reasonably identified in their employment contracts.”  

Relying on a 1934 U.S. Supreme Court decision, McKinley contended that the forum selection clause in his employment contracts was unenforceable. The WCAB responded that the negative view of forum selection clauses was changed by the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in M/S Breman v. Zapata Off-Shore Co. The Breman decision created a presumption in favor of forum selection clauses which has been followed by California courts. The Court in Breman described four grounds that could overcome the presumption of validity of a forum selection clause. The four grounds are: 1) the clause is the product of fraud, 2) enforcement of the clause would be unreasonable, 3) conducting proceedings in the contractual forum would create grave difficulty and inconvenience, and 4) enforcement of the clause would violate strong public policy. 

The WCAB concluded that none of the grounds described in the Breman decision applied to McKinley’s situation. There was no evidence that the Cardinals perpetrated any fraud. Arizona is a reasonable forum since it is the home base for the Cardinals and McKinley resides there. There is no evidence that it would be gravely difficult or inconvenient for McKinley to file a workers’ compensation claim in Arizona. And, the forum selection clause in McKinley’s contracts did not violate California fundamental public policy; the WCAB concluded that “California has a stronger public policy interest in following the parties’ forum selection clause than it does in exercising jurisdiction over applicant’s claim for workers’ compensation.” 

In discussing the public policy issue, the WCAB noted that decisions involving forum selection have an impact on the delivery of justice in California. The WCAB ended its opinion with this observation about workers’ compensation claims filed by NFL players: “Our concern about court congestion and the overburdening of already strained judicial resources is not based upon abstract speculation. The NFL consists of 32 teams playing in 23 states and occasionally foreign countries. Each club is allowed a maximum of 53 players on their roster. Because three NFL teams are domiciled in California, players from all of the 29 other teams could potentially claim that they incurred some portion of a cumulative injury in California merely because they played one or more games in the state. In fact, numerous claims have been filed in California by professional football players and other professional athletes, and those claims impose a substantial burden on the WCAB’s limited resources.” 
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