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Retired Football Player Awarded Workers’ Comp Benefits

Last Wednesday, Maryland’s highest court ruled in favor of a former NFL punter who suffered a career-ending back injury while warming up for a preseason game in 2005. Tom Tupa of the Washington Redskins landed awkwardly during a pre-game warm-up at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland and felt a sharp pain in his lower back.

He sought immediate medical attention for his injury…this fact helped his case tremendously.

Tupa, 46, played for 18 seasons (1988-2005) in the NFL for seven different teams. The punter didn’t play again after his back injury.

In the court’s 16-page opinion, Tupa is in fact eligible for workers’ comp benefits since the injury occurred “out of and in the course of (his) employment.”

In his written opinion, Judge John Eldridge opined – “Ample evidence was presented to show that Tupa suffered a compensable accidental injury during the course of his employment.”

In its opinion, the court rejected the team’s argument that football injuries not be considered accidental because of the rough nature of the sport. The team also argued that Maryland’s workers’ comp agency didn’t have jurisdiction over the retired player’s claim since he was contractually bound to file any injury claims in Virginia, which is where the team is actually headquartered.

However, the court cited prior case law that found that Maryland workers’ comp can apply to an employee’s claim.

Tupa did file a claim in Virginia in 2006 for his back injury but later withdrew it. In March 2007, Tupa filed a claim with the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission. The team however challenged his claim on jurisdictional grounds, whether the injury was accidental and whether the player’s disability was related to his accident in 2005.

The Commission ruled in March 2008 that it could in fact exercise jurisdiction over Tupa’s claim and subsequently awarded him temporary partial disability benefits and medical expenses. The team (…and their insurer) appealed this decision, requesting a trial jury to determine Tupa’s eligibility for workers’ comp benefits.

The jury ruled that Tupa had sustained an accidental injury and that his disability was connected.

This decision was once again appealed to Maryland’s intermediate appellate court…the court though upheld the commission’s and jury’s decision.

Professional sports and workers’ comp can be quite complicated. As we see from this Maryland case, it can take years to determine if a player is covered and if so, under which jurisdiction.

California for example has a little-known provision in its workers’ comp statutes that lets a pro player from anywhere file a claim provided they played at least one game in the state of California.

Many injured players, including retired Bronco Floyd Little, have filed claims in California for a variety of issues related to their careers. While most of these claims are for former NFL players, pro basketball and baseball players have filed cases as well. A 2010 New York Times investigation found 700 pending cases involving NFL players…hundreds more have been settled.

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Categories: Workers' Compensation
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