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The not-so Big Easy: Louisiana District Judge limits AFL player to workers’ compensation for concussion injuries

American football placed between two football helmets on field

23 May 2017

On May 10, 2017, Judge Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana held that Lorenzo Breland, a professional arena football player suffering from alleged concussions, was limited to pursing relief through a workers’ compensation claim. As such, the player was barred from pursuing his intentional tort claims against Arena Football One, LLC (the AFO), which owns both the Arena Football League One, LLC and Louisiana Arena Football, LLC.

In originating this lawsuit, Breland asserted that he suffered multiple concussions while playing for the New Orleans Voodoo in 2014. He brought claims of misrepresentation, fraud, negligence, and breach of contract, essentially arguing that the AFO knew of the potential risks associated with head trauma, intentionally concealed these risks, and fostered an environment of brutality while ignoring the wellbeing of its players for the sake of profit. Moreover, Breland alleged that the defendants falsely misrepresented that they would provide excellent medical care, and while the league’s collective bargaining agreement provided that the Defendants would pay all medical expenses resulting from game-related injuries, no such payments had been made.

In response, the AFO moved for summary judgment, indicating that should Breland wish to seek any recovery, the proper course of action would be through the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act (the LWCA). Under the LWCA, workers’ compensation is the sole remedy for an employee injured in the course and scope of employment, with the exception of liability for intentional acts. For this exception to apply, the AFO must have either: “(1) consciously desire[d] the physical result of [their] act, whatever the likelihood of that result happening from [their] conduct; or (2) know[n] that the result is substantially certain to follow from [their] conduct, whatever [their] desire may be as to that result.

Ultimately, Judge Fallon granted the AFO’s motion, reasoning that Breland had failed to meet his burden to prove that intentional act exception applied in this case. Specifically, Judge Fallon noted that Breland failed to provide any evidence of this intentional desire to harm him, beyond the “unsubstantiated allegation that the commissioner may have intentionally directed a player to hit him.” Furthermore, with regard to whether the head injuries were substantially certain to occur, Judge Fallon acknowledged that while it is not uncommon for football players to experience brain injury, such injury is not “inevitable” as is required to meet the exception to the LWCA.

While this case was ultimately determined under Louisiana-specific law, it follows a trend of exponentially increasing inquiries regarding the interplay between professional athletes and workers’ compensation. For example, back in November 2016, a group of 38 former NFL players brought a federal lawsuit in Florida against the NFL and its 32 teams individually, arguing that the NFL be forced to recognize chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a covered disease under workers’ compensation law. This complaint was later withdrawn, though the plaintiffs’ attorneys indicated the players still intend to aggressively pursue workers’ compensation claims in the individual states.

Should these former players reach an impasse in establishing CTE as a compensable injury, we may be heading toward a tricky intersection. Specifically, should we reach the point where a judge limits game-related CTE to workers’ compensation, but workers’ compensation refuses to recognize CTE as a compensable injury, the State Legislatures may need to swoop in and take the reins.

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