Ninth Circuit Allows Football Player’s Claims Against the NFL to Proceed

In 2014, Richard Dent and nine other retired football players sued the NFL, on behalf of themselves and other players similarly situated, for plying them with hundreds, if not thousands, of injections and pills containing powerful painkillers so that they would continue playing despite injuries. Dent, who played on four different teams over the course of his fourteen year long career with the NFL, claims that he was never warned about the potential side effects or long-term risks of the medication, and by the time his career ended, he had an enlarged heart, permanent nerve damage and an addiction to painkillers. Like Dent, the other nine players describe receiving copious amounts of opioids, anti-inflammatories, and local anesthetics – almost always without a written prescription or any warnings – and resulting long-term damage and addiction. Similar lawsuits have been brought by players against the teams that they played for, but were dismissed because the courts ruled that their only remedy was to file worker’s compensation claims. (E.g. Evans v. Arizona Cardinals Football Club, LLC, 262 F.Supp.3d 935 (N.D.Cal. 2017).

In response to Dent’s lawsuit, the NFL argued that his and the other players’ claims were preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”). The LMRA is a federal statute that governs disputes arising out of labor contracts. Cases that fall under the LMRA must be resolved through a grievance procedure and arbitration, instead of in the court system. When a lawsuit is filed in state court, and the claims are based on rights set forth in a collective bargaining agreement, or require substantive analysis of such an agreement, the suit must be dismissed. The federal court ruled that the players’ claims were governed by the LMRA and dismissed the lawsuit, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has now reversed that ruling. (Dentv. National Football League, 2018 WL 4224431 (9th Cir. 2018).)

The Ninth Circuit examined whether the players’ claims could be decided independently of the collective bargaining agreement. The players’ claims were based primarily on allegations of negligence. To prove negligence in California, a plaintiff must show: (1) the defendant had a duty or obligation to conduct itself in such a way as to protect others against unreasonable risks; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the breach of the duty proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury; and, (4) the plaintiff was actually harmed. Sometimes, there is a statute that regulates the defendant’s conduct, and if the plaintiff can show that the defendant violated that statute, and that the plaintiff was the kind of person the statute was designed to protect, the court will presume that the defendant breached its duty. This doctrine is called negligence per se.

Dent and the other players argued that the NFL’s conduct was governed by various statutes – the Controlled Substances Act, the Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act, and the California Pharmacy Laws – and that the NFL’s violation of those statutes was negligence per se. They did not argue, on the other hand, that the NFL had violated the collective bargaining agreements.

Therefore, the Ninth Circuit found that their claims were not governed by the LMRA, because they did not require an interpretation of the collective bargaining agreements to determine the merits of the players’ claims. Likewise, the Ninth Circuit found that the players’ other claims for the negligent hiring of doctors and trainers, misrepresentation, and fraud were also unrelated to the collective bargaining agreements, and would be allowed to proceed through the court system.

The Ninth Circuit concluded, “Carelessness in the handling of dangerous substances is both illegal and morally blameworthy, given the risk of injury it entails. Imposing liability on those involved in improper prescription-drug distribution will prevent harm by encouraging responsible entities to ensure that drugs are administered safely. And it will not represent an undue burden on such entities, which should already be complying with the laws governing prescription drugs and controlled substances. Thus, we conclude that to the extent the NFL is involved in the distribution of controlled substances, it has a duty to conduct such activities with reasonable care.”

Following remand back to federal court, it is likely that the NFL will next seek dismissal of the players’ claims as untimely based on the statute of limitations, so this may not be the last time the Ninth Circuit is called upon to examine this case. Dent and the other players may have a long way to go before they can score a legal touchdown, but we applaud their efforts to bring attention to this important issue and to seek justice on behalf of their fellow teammates.

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