Board Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction Where Former WBNA Player Involved in Only One Game During 34-Game Career

A former basketball player in the Women’s National Basketball Association, who never resided in California, played just one of her 34-game career within the state, and who suffered no specific injury during that game, may not have her cumulative trauma workers’ compensation claim adjudicated within the California system, held a California appellate court recently in Federal Ins. Co. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (Johnson), 2013 Cal. App. LEXIS 977 (Dec. 3, 2013). The appellate court accordingly annulled the Board’s decision that set the stage for at least a partial recovery by the former player.  

The applicant, following a pattern set within the past few years by a number of other professional athletes, had sought to take advantage of California’s relatively generous continuous trauma rules. Extensively citing the discussion in Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law of successsive awards in different states [§ 140.01 et seq.], jurisdictional limits imposed by the federal constitution [§ 142.01 et seq.], and limits on jurisdiction imposed by state law [§ 143.01 et seq.], the court held that California did not have a sufficient interest to apply its workers’ compensation law and to retain jurisdiction over the case.

The court also observed that in a recent federal decision, Matthews v. National Football League Management Council, 688 F.3d 1107 (9th Cir. 2012), a professional football player played 13 games during his 19-year career in California, but was unable to show any specific injury or medical treatment in California. That Matthews made a claim of cumulative injuries was insufficient in itself to overcome his employment contract that called for the application of Tennessee law, held the 9th Circuit court.

The court indicated that in the case before it, the situs of the employment relationship was either Connecticut, where the player’s team was located or New Jersey, where the player signed her employment contract. The court acknowledged that places of the applicant’s injuries, employment relationship, employment contract, and residence, all possible connections for the application of a state’s workers’ compensation law, did not have any relationship to California. Moreover, California had no obligation to apply the workers’ compensation law of any other state. Thus, as a matter of due process, California did not have the power to entertain the applicant’s claim.

Practice point:

Cal. Labor Code § 3600.5, which covers out-of-state employees temporarily within the state, no longer applies to professional athletes who spend less than 20 percent of their working days as professional athletes in California. Since the amendment did not apply retroactively, it had no application in this case.

Bruce Matthews who played for 19 years with the Tennessee Titans organization. In Matthews v. National Football League Management Council (9th Cir. 2012) 688 F.3d 1107, although Matthews played 13 games during his career in California, he was unable to show any specific injury or medical treatment in California. That he, like Johnson, made a claim of cumulative injuries was insufficient in itself to overcome his employment contract that called for the application of Tennessee law. In Johnson’s case, the court found her disability did not arise from her only game played California in July 2003. So the situs of the employment relationship governed here due in large part because California did not have a sufficient relationship with Johnson’s injuries; California did not have the power to entertain her claim.

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