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Workers’ compensation exclusivity bars NFL painkiller suit

In July, a federal judge in California dismissed a class action lawsuit on behalf of former players against the NFL. The plaintiffs alleged that injured players were given painkillers to allow them to resume play, sometimes causing permanent injury. The judge said that workers’ compensation laws in the three states at issue barred the lawsuits directly against the NFL as employer because workers’ compensation almost always the exclusive and only legal remedy for work-related injuries. 


Normally, as the exclusive remedy, workers’ compensation law bars an employee from suing his or her employer directly for work-related injury or disease, instead requiring him or her to get financial compensation from workers’ compensation benefits. 

However, most states, including Maryland, have very narrow exceptions to the exclusive remedy bar that may allow a suit against an employer or third party. The players argued that despite the exclusivity of workers’ compensation, their personal injury suits could proceed in federal court under exceptions in the three states’ laws involved. 

State-law exceptions 

Normally, the question of who was at fault for an injury is not an issue in workers’ compensation claims, but a state may enact laws creating exceptions to the exclusive-remedy rule. If an exception applies, that employee may sue for pain and suffering and possibly other damages in a civil lawsuit. 

In the NFL case, the court found that none of these state-law exceptions applied to the allegations of the plaintiffs:

  • California exception for an employer that fraudulently conceals an employment-related injury, thereby aggravating it
  • California exception for an employer that commits “willful physical assault”
  • Colorado exception for an employer that intentionally harms the employee
  • Wisconsin exception for a suit against a coemployee who committed intentional assault 

Maryland exceptions 

Maryland also recognizes a few narrow exceptions to workers’ compensation exclusivity such as: 

  • The employer failed to carry required workers’ compensation insurance.
  • The employer deliberately intended to injure or kill the worker.
  • A third party has liability for the injury such as by acting negligently, recklessly or illegally and thereby causing the harm. 

Any Maryland employee injured in the course of employment should speak as soon as possible with an attorney to understand his or her workers’ compensation rights as well as any potential legal remedy outside workers’ compensation like a personal injury suit that falls within one of these exceptions. 

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