Arizona is on the verge of shutting the door on the ability of players for Arizona's professional sports teams to file workers' compensation claims elsewhere, even if that's where they were injured.
Legislative approved Wednesday by the House Commerce Committee would require any claim for medical care or lost wages by those employed by Arizona-based companies to be filed in Arizona. More to the point, the claims would be governed by Arizona laws which have less-generous benefits -- and more stringent standards of proof -- than many other states, particularly California.
But the real driving force appears to be the two major sports teams trying to limit their liability. And it would have a big impact on retired baseball players claiming degenerative injuries from their time on the field and football players seeking compensation for all the tackles and sacks they sustained over their careers.
Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, said SB 1148, which already has been approved by the Senate, was brought to him by the state's sports teams.
No one from any team testified Wednesday in favor of the bill prior to the 7-2 vote.
But at an earlier Senate hearing, Nona Lee, an attorney for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said her team has been beset by many claims filed in California by former players saying that they are entitled to benefits.
``Unlike Arizona, California has no meaningful statute of limitations,'' she told a Senate panel. The result, she said, is the team is currently dealing with 30 claims filed in California by former Diamondbacks, versus just two filed in Arizona.
But Matt Nussbaum, an attorney for the Major League Baseball Players Association, told House lawmakers on Wednesday that the Diamondbacks tried to get such a requirement put into the collective bargaining agreement but were not successful.
"They're basically, to my mind, looking for a second bite at the apple and looking to get secure what they couldn't get in the context of private, arms-length negotiation through collective bargaining,'' he told lawmakers.
But much more than baseball is at issue.
Ned Ehrlich, an attorney for the NFL Players Association, said his members also want to retain the ability to file injury claims in California. He described football as an industry with "essentially a 100 percent injury rate'' to its players.
"The resulting care and medical treatment following those injuries is extremely important,'' Ehrlich said.
The issue, Ehrlich said, is not so much what happens during the year of the injury. He said that, in most cases, the team itself provides the care.
It's what happens after that first year, what with players generally having one-year contracts, that matters when the team is no longer obligated to provide that care.
Under normal circumstances, Ehrlich said, an employee injured on the job is entitled to medical benefits and partial lost wages through the state's workers' compensation system.
But Arizona law generally requires claims to be filed within the first year or be forfeited. And there is nothing in state law requiring that injured workers be informed of the deadline.
The result, he said, is those who are getting team-provided care do not think about the need to file a claim until it's too late.
By contrast, California law waives that one-year limit if an employer does not provide the notice.
The issue, though, is even more complex than that.
California has, in comparison to many other states, more liberal rules about allowing workers to file claims for what essentially are cumulative injuries that have occurred over a long period of time. That is particularly important in sports like football where there is evidence that prolonged and repeated tackling eventually leads to brain injuries and other degenerative conditions.
Jim Stabler, chief counsel for the State Compensation Fund of Arizona, said Arizona does provide coverage for cumulative injuries. But he acknowledged that the standards for getting compensation here are stricter than what he called the "squishy'' ones in California.
In essence, he said, a former football player who files a California claim based on forgetting things and lapses in skills probably would get a workers' compensation award in that state. In Arizona, by contrast, Stabler said the state would probably demand proof that any "degenerative change'' is the result of something more than just the natural aging process.
That makes it easier for the athlete to get benefits.
The Los Angeles Times, which has looked into the issue, said it found millions of dollars had been awarded to professional athletes for work-related injuries, most of that to players from out-of-state teams.
The paper cited the case of Terrell Davis who played for the Denver Broncos for seven years before retiring. But in 2011 he got a $199,000 settlement from a California workers' compensation court even though he played just nine times in California during his career.
In response, a California lawmaker introduced a measure last month to deny coverage there for those working for out-of-state companies, even for injuries that occur within California, if the employer's workers' compensation insurance provides coverage for the employee. It also says teams have no liability for cumulative injuries if the athlete was employed by a company outside of California during his or her last year of work.
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, urged colleagues to stay out of the issue.
"It is not our place to override contracts between private employers and their employees,'' she said. And McCune Davis pointed out that there are no public funds involved here. All of the benefits come from a special fund which is fueled by an assessment on employers.
But Stabler said there is an effect on other Arizona employers.
He said the risk of facing a California claim has resulted in his insurer, the largest workers' compensation provider in the state, no longer providing coverage for any firm whose employees may spend any time at all in California. Stabler said that affects not only businesses along the Colorado River but also trucking firms.
And with other insurers also refusing to provide coverage, Stabler said that forces these employers into a special "assigned risk'' pool where premiums are 30 to 40 percent higher than for normal insurance.