In the case of Kenney et al. v. Kansas City Chiefs Football Club, Inc., former Chiefs players sued the organization, alleging the club had failed to adequately protect and warn players of the dangers of concussions. As part of their suit, the players cited a specific Missouri workers’ compensation law, one that allows an injured worker to sue their employer for work-related injuries even if the employee had declined workers’ compensation. Most states require an injured worker to seek a remedy exclusively through workers’ compensation. This key difference, in addition to highlighting disparity in the workers’ compensation laws nationwide, also made Missouri an attractive forum for a suit against an NFL team.
The NFL argued that the suit implicated the Labor Management Relations Act, and should be included with the much larger (and headline grabbing) concussion litigation taking place in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The players, fighting to keep the suit in the Western District of Missouri, made several arguments. First, they alleged a lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction. They then asserted that the Chiefs, and not the NFL as a whole, were the named defendants. The players also argued that the claim arose under Missouri workers’ compensation laws and was therefore different from the Pennsylvania suit. Finally, they asserted that the transfer would inconvenience the plaintiffs, delay the action, and “effectively void the plaintiffs’ claims, causing extreme prejudice.”
The Judicial Panel disagreed with plaintiffs, primarily citing the common questions and issues in both cases, previously transferred cases with similar arguments, and the fact that similar claims were filed by the same plaintiffs in the ongoing Pennsylvania claim. Additionally, the Panel ruled that “jurisdictional issues do not present an impediment to transfer.” Interestingly, the Panel’s decision did not address the Plaintiffs’ workers’ compensation claim, instead glossing over it in favor of the common issues and facts between the two cases.
This ruling represents an important decision in the often overlooked realm of workers’ compensation and the professional athlete. Pro athletes, including NFL players, are covered in some form or another under workers’ compensation statutes in a majority of states. However, the claims these athletes can bring are becoming increasingly restricted, particularly as related to concussions. In that regard, the most attractive workers’ compensation claim would be one based on cumulative trauma. However, few states recognize these types of claims, and the state most often used by players in asserting cumulative trauma, California, drastically reduced the availability of the claim to nonresident players in 2013. These ongoing restrictions can be seen in Kenney as well. The unique Missouri law that allowed the players to bring their suit in the first place expired on December 31, 2013, meaning yet another potential forum for professional athlete workers’ compensation claims has become less attractive. The Kenney decision therefore represents another step in the increasing reduction of legal avenues available to injured professional athletes under state workers’ compensation laws.