In a suit brought by a professional football team and its insurer challenging a decision by the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission (the “Commission”), the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a former football player who sustained career-ending injuries during a game. The court ruled in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Tupa that the Commission has jurisdiction over the player’s claim, that his injuries were “accidental,” and that he is therefore eligible for compensation under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act.
Thomas Tupa entered into a four-year contract in March 2004 with Pro-Football, Inc., which operates the Washington Redskins professional football team. Tupa would play the punter position on the team. Pro-Football is a Maryland corporation that owns the stadium where the team plays its home games, FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. The teams practice and warm-up facilities are located in Virginia. Tupa’s contract includes a clause that gives the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission jurisdiction over disputes between the parties.
Tupa first complained of lower back pain in January 2005, which the doctor said would not prevent Tupa from playing in the 2005-06 season. During a warm-up for a pre-season game on August 19, 2005, Tupa landed awkwardly after a practice punt and experienced a “jarring” sensation, followed by sharp back pain. The doctor told him that he could not play until he resolved the condition. The condition did not improve, and by January 2006 the doctor said that, even with major back surgery, he would be unlikely to play again. Two additional doctors agreed that the injury was “career-ending,” but one of them said that the incident in August 2005 only aggravated an existing degenerative condition brought on by years of punting. Tupa has worked in a sedentary job since February 2006.
Tupa filed a claim with the Commission in March 2007. Pro-Football and its insurer challenged the Commission’s jurisdiction based on the clause in Tupa’s contract. The Commission determined that it had jurisdiction in March 2008, and that Tupa’s injury was an accidental, employment-related injury. It awarded him partial temporary benefits and ordered Pro-Football to pay his medical expenses. Pro-Football challenged these findings in circuit court, and a jury upheld the Commission’s decision after a two-day trial.
After several appeals courts affirmed the trial court’s ruling, the case came to the Court of Appeals. The court considered two questions: whether he Commission had jurisdiction, and whether Tupa’s injury was “accidental” and “in the course of his employment.” The court cited the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act, which says that any clause of an employment contract that waives an employee’s rights under the Act is void. Since Pro-Football would otherwise be obligated under the Act, it held the jurisdiction clause in Tupa’s contract void.
Regarding the nature of Tupa’s injury, the court noted that almost every state with an NFL team treats injuries during practices or games as compensable. Since the injury occurred during a warm-up, in the course of punting practice, the court held that it was an accidental injury in the course of his employment, and therefore compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
The lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen pursue justice for people in Maryland who have suffered injury due to unsafe premises and dangerous working conditions. We are also skilled at representing our clients in insurance coverage disputes. Contact us today online or call (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.
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Workers Severely Burned in Worksite Accidents, Maryland Accident Law Blog, November 30, 2011