The Saints’ First Preseason Opponent: Workers Compensation Benefits

Last month, as the Who Dat Nation evaluated the Saints draft picks and free agency signings, there was a pending legal controversy that could have impacted the Saints’ odds of parading through New Orleans with the Lombardi Trophy in 2015 and beyond. House Bill 1069, which passed by the Louisiana House of Representatives by a vote of 56-32, has recently served as a dividing line between Saints players and management. The Saints organization supported the Bill, whereas numerous Saints players and the NFL Players Association denounced the proposed legislation. The controversy surrounds the calculation of workers’ compensation benefits owed to professional athletes (including players for the Pelicans and Zephyrs) when they are injured in the line of work. More specifically, the Bill would have required calculation of workers’ compensation benefits based on weekly earnings at the time of a player’s injury rather than calculating a player’s weekly earnings based on the player’s annual salary. This methodology is significant because the timing of a player’s injury could have massive financial consequences.

The standard NFL player contract contains variable wage rates depending on the time of year. A player earns far more during the regular season, for instance, than he does during the offseason and/or preseason. This variation in wages was the impetus for House Bill 1069. Simplistically, under Louisiana Worker’s Compensation law, a worker who is injured on the job is entitled to a benefit effectively calculated as follows: the worker’s average weekly wage at the time of injury minus the worker’s average weekly wage after the injury. Players have argued that their wages should be calculated on an annual basis rather than by their wages at the time of injury. Such a calculation could vastly increase the player’s weekly wage at the time of injury, and therefore permit them to collect greater benefits. For example, a player earning $500,000.00 per year could get hurt in the preseason when he is making $500 per week. NFL players contend that the average weekly wage for that player would not be $500 per week but rather $9,615.38 ($500,000.00 divided by 52 weeks). To the contrary, the Saints organization backed the Bill, contending that it simply serves to codify Louisiana jurisprudence.

Indeed, this issue has been considered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal for the State of Louisiana on more than one occasion in cases such as Campbell v. New Orleans Saints, 113 So.3d 1215 (La.App. 5 Cir. 5/16/13). In Campbell, the Fifth Circuit opined that “the only figure of significance is the amount Mr. Campbell was earning at the time of his injury.” As such, any benefits to which plaintiff would have been entitled in Campbell were limited to the $525 weekly pre-season salary plaintiff was earning when he suffered a debilitating knee injury. Notably, the Court inCampbell recognized the plaintiff’s proposition that the entire contract amount should be used in arriving at the average weekly wage pursuant to Meier v. New Orleans Saints, 6 So.3d 944 (La.App. 4 Cir. 3/12/09), but the Meier holding was “not the law in this circuit” according to Campbell. Perhaps given this apparent uncertainty between Circuits, both the NFL Players Association and the Saints organization have supported various iterations of legislation on this topic in recent years. House Bill 1069, which was authored and ultimately withdrawn by Rep. Chris Broadwater, provided a sounding board whereby professional athletes decried their reduction in rights while supporters of the Bill heralded that it prohibited special treatment for athletes over other Louisiana citizens. Ultimately, Rep. Broadwater withdrew the bill in the hope that the two sides could reach a compromise, but how such a compromise could be crafted is a question for another day. For now, it appears that any 2014 preseason injuries might also feature a lawsuit over the benefits to which the player is entitled.

The controversy surrounding House Bill 1069 may have subsided in the short term, but the long-term impact of such a Bill on the ability of professional sports franchises to draw elite talent to Louisiana via free agency remains dubious. Perhaps if the Saints can continue to find legends like Marques Colston in the last round of the draft, though, House Bill 1069 will remain a legal curio well-hidden behind the Saints’ second Lombardi Trophy.