A federal judge in California dismissed the remaining claims in a wide-reaching lawsuit filed by former football players alleging NFL teams mistreated them with pain medication for years.
In his order Friday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said the case could not proceed because the two former players whose claims were still alive had previously sought relief through workers’ compensation claims. Alsup had previously dismissed a similar case alleging improper administration of pain drugs in the NFL, saying the collective bargaining agreement provided other avenues for adjudication.
“Although workers’ compensation and collective bargaining remedies are not gold-plated remedies, they are at least remedies recognized under the law,” Alsup wrote in his order Friday. “The sweeping remedy sought herein by plaintiffs is not, on this record, available under the law.”
While the former players’ case sought class-action status, it laid out the claims of 14 defendants against all 32 teams. Alsup dismissed the bulk of those claims in May, saying the players failed to demonstrate that their present-day medical ailments are tied to the medications they received during their playing careers.
The allegations laid out in the lawsuit, much of it detailed in transcripts and documents obtained through the discovery process, drew widespread attention to the NFL’s drug practices, prompting questions from Congress and a grievance filed against the league by the NFL Players Association. The Drug Enforcement Administration also investigated the league and launched surprise inspections of some teams shortly after the initial lawsuit was filed in 2014, but never announced any wrongdoing.
“Through this litigation, the retired NFL players have accomplished a significant victory in bringing the misuses and abuses of Toradol and narcotics pain killers in the NFL to the forefront of public attention,” said Steven Silverman, the Baltimore-based attorney who represented the former players, in a statement. “This litigation has spurred positive action by the DEA, NFLPA and Congress. As a result of these players’ willingness to make a stand, they have made the game safer. The decision of one judge does not change the impact of the case.”
An NFL spokesman declined to comment on the judge’s decision. Silverman said the former players would likely appeal Alsup’s decision.
“As we have said all along, these allegations were meritless and the decision validates our position,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Saturday.
A related case, filed in May 2014 and featuring Pro Football Hall of Famer Richard Dent as lead plaintiff, is already under appeal. While Alsup similarly dismissed the claims in the Dent lawsuit in December 2014, he noted at the time that “player injuries loom as a serious and inevitable evil. Proper care of these injuries is likewise a paramount need.”
In his order Friday, the judge noted the gravity of the allegations and the health and safety concerns laid out by the former players. “This and other orders ruling against the theories advanced by plaintiffs’ counsel in these cases do not diminish the seriousness of the national need to protect the health and safety of our professional athletes,” Alsup said.
The players alleged they were plied with pain medication to the detriment of their own health to keep them on the playing field, and contended teams didn’t warn them about potential side effects and broke federal law by improperly storing, distributing and transporting controlled substances. The NFL said in a letter to Congress that its teams followed DEA guidance on handling controlled substances, and a DEA official told lawmakers that the league has taken steps to address the agency’s concerns in recent years.
In dismissing the bulk of the case in May, Alsup said the ex-players’ attorneys hadn’t adequately explained the health damages the players suffered because of pain medication use and whether their claims are barred by statute of limitation. He allowed just two players’ claims to proceed.
Reggie Walker, an NFL linebacker from 2009 to 2014, alleged that the San Diego Chargers kept him and his injured ankle on the field with regular injections of Toradol, a powerful nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Three years removed from his playing career, Walker said he still continues to experience ankle pain. And Alphonso Carreker, a defensive end who played from 1984 to 1991, charged the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers with plying him with pain medication, and as a result he required heart surgery in 2013.
While the teams argued that these remaining claims were barred from proceeding because of previous workers’ compensation claims, the former players contended that the claims “fall within an intentional harm exception.”
In his order, Alsup said, “the mere culpability of such misconduct . . . is not a basis for keeping in court a claim properly subject to the exclusive remedy provisions of workers’ compensation laws.”