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Painkiller lawsuit dismissed

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Closeup of syringe, or needle. Credit: Stickler/Getty. Original Filename: 84425860.jpg

Stickler/Getty

When a group of former players sued the NFL for the improper distribution of painkillers by team doctors, the effort got a lot more traction in the media than the concussion lawsuits received in their early stages. Viewed as the next wave of liability for a league plagued with safety concerns, it was presumed by many that the NFL was on the ropes, from a legal perspective.

While the concussion lawsuit ended up generating significant liability for the NFL, the painkiller lawsuit apparently will create none.

U.S. Judge William Alsup has dismissed the lawsuit, explaining that it is preempted by the Collective Bargaining Agreements governing the relationship between the NFL and its players.

“In ruling against the novel claims asserted herein, this order does not minimize the underlying societal issue,” Judge Alsup wrote in a 22-page order, a copy of which PFT has obtained. “In such a rough-and-tumble sport as professional football, player injuries loom as a serious and inevitable evil. Proper care of these injuries is likewise a paramount need. The main point of this order is that the league has addressed these serious concerns in a serious way -- by imposing duties on the clubs via collective bargaining and placing a long line of health-and-safety duties on the team owners themselves. These benefits may not have been perfect but they have been uniform across all clubs and not left to the vagaries of state common law. They are backed up by the enforcement power of the union itself and the players’ right to enforce these benefits. Given the regime in place after decades of collective bargaining over the scope of these duties, it would be impossible to fashion and to apply new and supplemental state common law duties on the league without taking into accountvthe adequacy and scope of the CBA duties already set in place.”

In other words, if individual teams and/or individual team doctors have been prescribing medication improperly, the players should pursue claims directly against the teams, through the arbitration procedures available under the labor deal.

The ruling doesn’t account for the period when there was no CBA, following the 1987 strike and until 1993. Still, even without the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it seems that it would have been difficult if not impossible for former players to prove that the NFL has responsibility for the actions of its teams.

“The essence of plaintiffs’ claim for relief is that the individual clubs mistreated their players and the league was negligent in failing to intervene and stop their alleged mistreatment,” Judge Alsup wrote. “Plaintiffs anchor this claim for relief in supposed common law duties of each of the various states whose law would apply and vaguely suggest that all such states would impose the same uniform duty on the league to oversee the clubs.

“One problem is this: no decision in any state (including California) has ever held that a professional sports league owed such a duty to intervene and stop mistreatment by the league’s independent clubs.”

Judge Alsup gave the players until December 30 to file a motion for permission to amend the complaint that states a viable legal cause of action. The players also have appeal rights. So while the case isn’t over, it’s the players who are now on the ropes, from a legal perspective.