A federal judge ruled Friday that the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement does not prevent a group of former football players from seeking relief in U.S. District Court over injuries suffered from years of football-related drug use.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup denied the league’s motion to dismiss the class-action lawsuit. Alsup is the same judge who dismissed a similar suit in December 2014, saying then that the players’ claims were preempted by federal labor law and that the CBA between owners and players calls for other avenues for adjudication.
“It’s a historic decision to have a class-action case such as this overcome the NFL’s tried and true preemption argument,” Baltimore attorney Steven Silverman said. “They rely on the fact that there’s a collective bargaining agreement under labor law to avoid having to face the music in class-action suits by former players and to answer to allegations of wrong-doing.”
The league already successfully batted down one major legal challenge related to drug use in the NFL when Alsup dismissed the case led by former Chicago Bears Richard Dent and Jim McMahon. The same lawyers who represent a class of about 1,500 former players who say they were plied with drugs to mask pain and conceal injuries during their careers amended their claims and filed the new lawsuit in May 2015 with 12 new named plaintiffs, led by Etopia Evans, whose husband, Charles Evans, played fullback in the NFL and died in 2008.
The lawsuit says the players suffer from internal organ damage, as well as skeletal and muscular injuries, as a result of their drug use.
“The Clubs decided to keep their players on the field, and the profits high, by feeding drugs to their players in dangerous quantities and the manner in which they have done so shows brazen disregard for Federal and State drugs laws,” the initial complaint states.
According to the complaint, they’re suing for “redress of injuries resulting from a conspiracy perpetrated by the 32 clubs.” Combined, the 12 players suited up for all 32 teams at some point, and each of those teams is named individually as a defendant, not the league as an umbrella entity — an important deviation from the Dent case.
The league unsuccessfully argued that the new lawsuit should be dismissed for the same reasons the Dent lawsuit was: preemption.
But the former players also amended their charges slightly, focusing more on allegations of illegal actions by teams, trainers and doctors and less on simple negligence. Because the revised claims are “grounded in illegal conduct,” Alsup explained in his ruling, the complaint “falls under the illegality exemption” and the allegations are not subject solely to CBA considerations.
“Because the CBAs could not have validly sanctioned the indiscriminate distribution of medications in violation of these statutes, the terms of the CBA need not be construed,” the judge wrote.
The lead plaintiff’s husband, Charles Evans, played fullback in the NFL from 1993 to 2000 and died because of heart failure at 41.
“Mr. Evans was addicted to painkillers after his retirement from professional football,” the lawsuit states. “He became a person Mrs. Evans no longer recognized — constantly in pain and searching for relief.”
Silverman said he represents about 1,500 players and that the culture of drug use to treat pain and injuries permeated every team in the league for years. The initial Evans complaint said that in “a review of the medical records of 745 former players provided by the Clubs for purposes of Workmen’s Compensation claims, 164 (22 percent) players had no records at all, 196 (26.3 percent) did not mention any drugs at all, 64 (8.6 percent) mentioned drugs without dosages, and 321 (43 percent) mentioned only some dosages.”
Silverman said he’s hopeful the Evans case can move forward soon to the discovery phase.
After Alsup’s dismissal in December 2014, the Dent case was immediately appealed and sits in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where arguments and a ruling are possible by year’s end.