Proposed legislation could prevent professional athletes from taking advantage of liberal California work comp rules

California workers' compensation benefits have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars - nearly $750 million paid since the early 1980s - to a surprising group of applicants: professional athletes. California's work comp regulations are considered some of the most liberal in the nation, and many athletes who might have been barred by statutes of limitation in other states have successfully sought benefits here.

Athletes are prone to certain types of injuries, including those of a type known as "cumulative stress injuries" that come after repeated traumas. Since these can potentially be diagnosed years after the last trauma occurred, many athletes who might have played very briefly in California - as little as one or two games a year in some instances - are taking advantage of the state's generous workers' compensation system to cash in. Roughly 4,500 former professional athletes have sought and been awarded work comp benefits in California.

Many times those same athletes have filed previous claims in their home state and been denied for waiting too long after the injury was caused. Others are "double dipping" by getting benefits in California and another state.

Change on the way?

Even though the California work comp general fund doesn't contain taxpayer funds, the fact that administrative workers' compensation judges are state employees and are being forced to use time to consider applications from out-of-state applicants with only a tenuous link to California, businesses and lawmakers alike say that a change is overdue.

A proposal was introduced into the state legislature earlier this year by Henry Perea (D-Fresno), Chairman of the state's Assembly Insurance Committee to overhaul the way that California handles workers' compensation claims of professional athletes. The changes would, among other things, end the ability for out-of-state players with football, hockey, baseball, basketball and hockey teams to file for work comp benefits in California unless they had worked at least 90 days in the state in the year prior to the filing. It would also bar claims for "cumulative stress injuries" unless applicants also meet residency restrictions.

For the time being...

Perea's proposal has brought about some debate about what some see is a potential abuse of California's work comp system, but, for now, the pro athlete "loophole" remains open. That means that employers, including team owners and investors, could still end up paying out compensation benefits, and possibly setting themselves up for higher workers' compensation insurance premiums in the future.