Ex-player’s “slip and fall” case against NFL, Chargers is preempted, court rules

The CBA controls.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this post was previously published as an article in Hackney Publications’ Sports Litigation Alert.

A federal court in California has granted a motion by the National Football League and the Los Angeles Chargers to dismiss a negligence lawsuit brought by former Denver Broncos’ linebacker Aaron Patrick. The court found that Mr. Patrick’s claims against these two defendants were preempted by the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

Mr. Patrick’s injury

During the Monday Night football game between the Broncos and Chargers on October 17, 2022, Mr. Patrick, after trying to make a tackle near the sideline on a punt, tripped over television cables and mats and collided with the NFL’s television liaison, the person responsible for coordinating commercial breaks. Mr. Patrick, an undrafted second year player, tore his anterior cruciate ligament (better known as “ACL”) in the process. He recovered and participated in the Broncos’ training camp this year, but he did not make the team.

The NFL’s preemption playbook

In November 2022, Mr. Patrick sued the NFL, ESPN, the Chargers, the entities that own and operate SoFi Stadium, and others, in California state court for negligence and premises liability. The NFL and the Chargers removed the case to federal court and then moved to dismiss, arguing that Mr. Patrick’s claims against them were preempted by the collective bargaining agreement, pursuant to the Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act. 

The NFL’s motion was a familiar one. Whenever the NFL or one of its clubs is sued by a player in court, they argue that the claims – usually state common-law tort claims – are preempted by Section 301. The well-established and controlling Supreme Court precedent on this issue, Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, holds that claims whose resolution is “substantially dependent upon analysis of the terms of” a labor contract are preempted. In other words, claims that are “inextricably intertwined” with the terms and provisions of the contract cannot proceed in court. The intended and frequent result is the dismissal of the claims.

In this case, the NFL argued that Mr. Patrick’s claims required analysis of Article 39, Section 11 of the contract, which establishes and discusses the responsibilities of the joint NFL-Players Association Field Surface Safety & Performance Committee. The Committee is responsible for establishing and enforcing playing field standards, known as the Field Surface Manual. The NFL argued that the court could not evaluate whether the NFL or the Chargers were negligent without evaluating whether they complied with the Field Surface Manual. Thus, the NFL argued that Mr. Patrick’s claim is really a breach of contract claim masquerading as tort claims.

Mr. Patrick argued that analysis of his claims did not require interpretation of the contract. Rather, he argued that the case was “a straightforward ‘slip-and-fall’ case,” and that the court should not be distracted by the fact that the fall occurred during a Monday Night Football game. According to Mr. Patrick, “the claims are garden-variety negligence and premises liability claims that turn simply on whether reasonable live-events broadcast producers would have placed their cords, cables, mats, and personnel which Mr. Patrick fell over in similar positions.” Such claims, in Mr. Patrick’s view, did not require analysis of the contract and thus were not preempted. He also argued that the court could not consider the Field Surface Manual because it is not an explicit part of the contract.

The court’s decision

As a threshold issue, the court determined that it could consider the Field Surface Manual in evaluating whether Mr. Patrick’s claims were preempted. In the court’s opinion, “it is clear that the document is intended to be incorporated into the CBA as a reference for mandatory safety standards.”

From there, the court evaluated whether Mr. Patrick’s negligence and premises liability claims were preempted by the contract. More specifically, the court considered whether any legal duty owed by the NFL and Chargers to Mr. Patrick arose from state law or, instead, the contract. The court noted, “The risk of injury arising from collision with objects on the sidelines is an inherent risk of professional football.” In other words, under California common law, the NFL and the Chargers did not owe a legal duty to Mr. Patrick to ensure that he did not collide with objects on the sidelines. 

Instead, the court said, “resolution of Patrick’s claims, and specifically determination of the scope of each defendant’s duty and potential liability, would require interpretation of the CBA,” including the Field Surface Manual. Thus, Mr. Patrick’s claims were preempted.

Section 301 of the LMRA provides federal courts with jurisdiction to hear claims for breach of a collective bargaining agreement. However, “Section 301 precludes an employee bound by a CBA from suing before exhausting bargained-for arbitration procedures.” The NFL-NFLPA contract contains grievance arbitration procedures that Mr. Patrick did not pursue. As a result, his claims against the NFL and Chargers were barred by Section 301 and dismissed in their entirety.

Ready for kickoff

Mr. Patrick has asked the court to reconsider its decision. Assuming the court refuses, Mr. Patrick is unlikely to pursue a grievance under the contract because of the contract’s strict 50-day time limit for filing a grievance. However, Mr. Patrick can still pursue his claims against the remaining "deep pockets," including ESPN and SoFi Stadium.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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