Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sports Fans - Don't Stipulate in California

In many workers' compensation litigated disputes, much of the factual issues are stipulated because the legal issues are so limited.

But sometimes a stipulation will work against a party when the existing law is shifting in scope and context.

One of the noted trends sweeping the workers' compensation world is the constriction on professional athletes taking their cumulative trauma claims to California for adjudication despite minimal physical contacts to the state.

The National Football League has been aggressively seeking legislation in key states to impose jurisdictional limitations and the California Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) this year issued two en banc decisions turning away football players who sought to bring cumulative trauma claims in California.

In fact just two weeks ago, the WCAB issued an en banc decision in which it found it did not have jurisdiction over a cumulative trauma claim by Wesley Carroll, a wide receiver who had played for the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals, even though Carroll was time-barred from bringing a claim in Ohio.

The WCAB in that decision ruled that California's workers' compensation laws could not govern a claim by an employee who was hired outside of the state and who was only temporarily within the state to perform work for an employer.

But the WCAB ruled against the New York Knicks in asserting jurisdiction over a claim brought by power forward Jerome Williams to adjudicate his claim in California. The Knicks filed an appeal with the 4th District Court of Appeal, Division 3, on Monday.

There was debate about the Williams case in the applicant attorney circles - some stating that the WCAB was sending a mixed message.

But there isn't any mixed message - the WCAB was simply following the facts of the case as stipulated by the parties.

And one of those facts that the Knicks, rightly or wrongly, stipulated to was a continuing trauma injury in California:

"Defendant Federal Insurance Company, the insurer for the New York Knickerbockers, petitions for reconsideration of the September 17, 2012 Findings and Orders. In that decision, the workers' compensation administrative law judge (WCJ) found that the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) has jurisdiction over applicant's claim and that applicant was a professional athlete, occupational group 590, for purposes of compensation. The parties had stipulated that applicant sustained an industrial injury to his back, neck, shoulders, knees, right elbow and right foot from 1996 through April 20, 2005." [Emphasis added.]

In fact, the WCAB simply adopted the WCJ's report and recommendations on reconsideration because there was no dispute on the salient facts. The WCJ's report states:

"The relevant facts are not in dispute. Applicant Jerome Williams was a professional basketball player who played for four NBA teams from 1996 through April 20, 2005, most recently the New York Knickerbockers (Knicks) from November 8, 2004 through April 20, 2005. Applicant filed an Application for Adjudication alleging multiple injuries as a result of cumulative trauma throughout his career. Applicant was never hired in California and played his entire career with Eastern Conference teams. He currently lives in Nevada and has never resided in California. His agent was based in Washington, D.C. Applicant's only contacts with California, and his sole basis for asserting California jurisdiction, were 24 games played in California during his nine-year career, including three games in California during his final season with the Knicks. (Report, p. 2.)"

It is emphasized again in the WCAB's opinion that the "parties stipulated that applicant sustained a cumulative industrial injury to his back, neck, shoulders, knees, right elbow, and right foot from 1996 through April 20, 2005 at various locations in California."

There was dispute about some other body parts.

"At trial, defendant stipulated to industrial injury in California. (Citation.) Although defendant argues incorrectly that the de minimis standard precludes jurisdiction, it concedes that applicant sustained 'mictrotraumas' in California which contributed to his cumulative injury. (Citation.) The WCJ therefore properly exercised jurisdiction over applicant's claim." [Emphasis original.]

The WCAB also noted that there was no forum selection clause governing industrial injury claims.

The WCAB did its job correctly in the Williams case. If the defendant didn't feel that there was an injury in California, microtrauma or not, it should have not stipulated to such.

But it did and as a consequence, based on long standing, well established California law, jurisdiction was asserted.

I doubt the Court of Appeals will find differently.

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