Maryland: Forum Selection Clause in Pro Football Employment Agreement Cannot Trump State Law

In a case involving a claim by a former Washington Redskins professional football player for benefits under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act, based upon an injury during pre-game warm-up at the employer’s stadium in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the Court of Appeals of Maryland, quoting Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 143.07, affirmed an earlier decision by an intermediate appellate court and held the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission appropriately exercised jurisdiction over the claim in spite of the fact that the employment agreement contained a forum selection clause providing, inter alia, that claims for workers’ compensation benefits should be governed by Virginia law and that the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission should have exclusive jurisdiction to resolve such claims [Pro-Football, Inc. v. Tuper, 2012 Md. LEXIS 475 (Aug. 22, 2012)]. The state high court also affirmed the lower court’s decision regarding a second issue presented: whether injuries occurring while playing and practicing professional football are “accidental injuries” and thus compensable under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act. Agreeing with the lower court and again quoting the “loose thinking” paragraph in Larson [§ 22.04], the high court indicated that to say that football injuries were not accidental because of the probability of injury was essentially to say that any activity with a high risk factor should be ruled noncompensable.

In March 2004, Tupa, a punter, entered into a four-year National Football League (NFL) employment contract with the Redskins. The employer was incorporated in Maryland and owned a stadium, named “FedEx Field,” located in Landover. All of the employer’s “home” football games were played at FedEx Field in Maryland, and the players’ practice or “warm-up” just before the games also occurred at FedEx Field. The employer had its headquarters and practice facility in Virginia, however, and most practices were at the Virginia facility. On August 19, 2005, at FedEx Field, during his pre-game warm-up for a pre-season game, Tupa landed awkwardly after a punt and felt a sharp pain in his lower back. He described the pain as a “jarring” sensation, sought immediate medical attention, and received medication.

Indicating approval of the Larson discussion of the issue, the court held that the employer and employee could not contract “out of” or into the jurisdiction of a particular state’s workers’ compensation scheme. The forum selection clause contravened Maryland’s public policy and was not controlling. As to the accidental nature of the injury, the court indicated that the commonplace nature of injuries in professional football did not mean those injuries were anything other than accidental. There was certainly no intention on the part of the players to get hurt.

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