NFL personal injury suit seeks to skirt CBA-mandated arbitration

The precedents conflict.

On November 15, Denver Broncos linebacker Aaron Patrick sued the National Football League, ESPN, the Los Angeles Chargers, the entities that own and operate SoFi Stadium, and others, in California state court for negligence and premises liability. Mr. Patrick was injured during the Monday Night Football game on October 17, 2022, between the Broncos and the Chargers. The game went into overtime, and Mr. Patrick, while trying to make a tackle near the sideline on a punt, collided with the NFL’s TV Liaison, the person responsible for coordinating and administering commercial breaks. Mr. Patrick, an undrafted second-year player, tore his anterior cruciate ligament – more commonly known as ACL -- a potentially career-ending injury.

The case presents interesting questions of labor and arbitration law. Mr. Patrick’s employment is governed by the collective bargaining agreement between his union, the NFL Players Association, and the NFL. Article 43 of that agreement requires, in relevant part, that

any dispute… involving the interpretation of, application of, or compliance with any provision of this agreement, the NFL Player Contract, the Practice Squad Player Contract, or any applicable provision of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws or NFL Rules pertaining to the terms and conditions of employment of NFL players… be resolved exclusively in accordance with the procedure set forth in this Article.”

The procedure set forth in that Article is a grievance arbitration process common in collective bargaining agreements. Additionally, Article 43 requires that any grievance be initiated within 50 days of the relevant incident.

Mr. Patrick has eschewed the agreement’s arbitration process and instead filed suit. The NFL and Chargers will almost certainly seek to compel arbitration, arguing that Mr. Patrick’s claims are preempted by the collective bargaining agreement. The court’s decision will depend on a determination as to whether Mr. Patrick’s claims are “inextricably intertwined” with the collective bargaining agreement. In other words, to compel arbitration, the court would have to find that it would be necessary for the court or a jury to interpret and apply relevant provisions of the collective bargaining agreement in evaluating whether the defendants violated a legal obligation to Mr. Patrick.

Courts have reached conflicting results in similar past cases. 

In 2001, lineman Orlando Brown sued the NFL after a referee threw a penalty flag weighted with BB pellets that struck Mr. Brown in the eye, causing him an injury that ended his career. A federal court held that Mr. Brown’s claims were not preempted because they were based on state common law duties independent of the collective bargaining agreement. 

In 2016, in a case similar to Mr. Patrick’s, running back Reggie Bush sued the St. Louis Rams and their stadium authority when, at the conclusion of a play, he injured his knee when he slipped and fell on a concrete surface surrounding the turf playing field. A federal court found that Mr. Bush’s claims were not preempted by the collective bargaining agreement. 

However, a state appellate court in Texas reached a different result in 2019. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans sued the Houston Texans after he suffered a career-ending Achilles tear due to what he alleged was an unsafe playing field. The court found that Mr. Ryans had to arbitrate his claims because they depended on NFL rules concerning playing fields, which were governed in relevant part by the collective bargaining agreement.

If the NFL and Chargers try to compel Mr. Patrick to arbitrate his claims, these precedents are likely to be reviewed at length. If Mr. Patrick is able to keep the lawsuit in court, the NFL may wish to revisit the scope of its arbitration provision with the NFL Players Association.

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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