California considering changes to athlete workers’ comp rules

Professional athletes run the risk of experiencing all sorts of injuries during their careers. Athletes are at risk not only for acute injuries, but also for injuries caused by cumulative trauma over a period of several years. These injuries can lead to very expensive workers' compensation claims.

These claims can be particularly expensive for employers and insurers in California because of the way state law handles claims made by professional athletes. This may soon change if a bill working its way through the California Legislature is passed into law.

The bill would limit the circumstances under which athletes who play for out-of-state teams could receive California workers' compensation benefits. Under current law, former athletes can file cumulative trauma claims in California, even if they never played for a California-based team and played only a few games in the state. Many of these claims include spinal injuries, nerve damage and other injuries that do not appear until years after an athlete has retired from professional sports. It is not rare for cumulative trauma claims to net six-figure workers' compensation awards. In some cases, athletes collect workers' compensation benefits both in California and in the state where their team was based.

The legislation would re-classify athletes under the workers' compensation code. If it becomes law, athletes from out-of-state teams would not be allowed to recover California workers' compensation benefits as long as their home team provided workers' compensation coverage and that coverage provided benefits for injuries sustained while the athlete was playing in California.

The legislation would also impact athletes who played for a California-based team but then moved somewhere else. These athletes would have to file a cumulative trauma claim within one year after their employment with the California team ended, or else the claim will be barred by the statute of limitations. This rule would not apply to athletes who played for a California-based team for at least eight consecutive years, so long as those eight years comprised at least 80 percent of their career as a professional athlete.

Athlete claims affect all employers

While the legislation applies only to claims made by professional athletes, it will likely have an impact on employers and workers' compensation insurers throughout the state.

Because cumulative trauma injuries can take a long time to become apparent, athletes' workers' compensation claims are often made years after the athlete played professional sports. If the team's insurer has gone insolvent since then, the claim will be paid by the California Insurance Guarantee Association, which is funded by fees levied on all California employers. According to data published in the San Jose Mercury News, CIGA has paid more than $41 million in claims brought by professional athletes since 2002.

As of early August, the bill had been approved in the Assembly and was currently awaiting action in the Senate.