Former NFL Player Has ‘Tort’ Case Against Chargers and League Dismissed on Preemption Grounds

Former NFL Player Has ‘Tort’ Case Against Chargers and League Dismissed on Preemption Grounds

(Editor’s Note: What is shared here is one of 13 articles from the latest Sports Litigation Alert, the nation’s leading sports law periodical.)

By Christopher R. Deubert, Senior Writer

In a September 21, 2023 decision, the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted a motion to dismiss by the NFL and Los Angeles Chargers in a case brought by former Denver Broncos’ linebacker Aaron Patrick.  Patrick v. NFL, 2023 WL 6162672 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 21, 2023).  The case presented a difficult and interesting test as to the scope of player claims that must be brought pursuant to the arbitration provisions in the NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Patrick’s Injury

During the October 17, 2022 Monday Night football game between the Broncos and Chargers, 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.  Unfortunately, Patrick, an undrafted second year player, tore his ACL in the process.  Patrick 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, Patrick sued the NFL, ESPN, the Chargers and the entities that own and operate SoFi Stadium, and others, in California state court for negligence and premises liability.  The NFL and Chargers subsequently removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss, arguing that Patrick’s claims were preempted by the CBA, pursuant to the Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 28 U.S.C. § 185.

The NFL’s motion was a familiar one.  Whenever the NFL or one of its clubs is sued by a player in court (which is not uncommon), 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 holds that claims whose resolution are “substantially dependent upon analysis of the terms of” a CBA are preempted.  Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 220 (1985).  In other words, claims that are “inextricably intertwined” with the terms and provisions of the CBA cannot proceed.  Id. at 213.  The intended and frequent result is the dismissal of the claims.

The plaintiff-players cannot reasonably dispute this standard at a high level, nor did Patrick in the instant case.  Instead, the parties argue over whether analysis of the claims actually requires interpretation of the CBA.

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

In response, Patrick argued that the case was “a straightforward ‘slip-and-fall case,” and the court should not get distracted by the fact that it occurred during a Monday Night Football game.  According to 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 Patrick fell over in similar positions.”  Such claims, in Patrick’s view, did not require analysis of the CBA and thus are not preempted.  Moreover, Patrick argued that the Court could not consider the Field Surface Manual, since it is not an explicit part of the CBA.

The Court Rules for the NFL and Chargers

As a threshold issue, the Court determined that it could consider the Field Surface Manual in evaluating whether 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.”  CBAs are commonly referred to in cases where preemption is argued on a motion to dismiss.  Consequently, the Court considered it appropriate to consider the Field Surfaces Manual on the NFL’s and Chargers’ motion.

From there, the Court evaluated whether Patrick’s negligence and premises liability claims were preempted by the CBA.  More specifically, the Court considered whether any duty owed by the NFL and Chargers to Patrick arises from state law or, instead, the CBA.  The Court noted that “[t]he 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 Chargers and NFL did not owe a duty to Patrick to ensure he did not collide with objects on the sidelines.

Instead, in the Court’s determination, “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. The Field Surface Manual imposes obligations on the NFL and the Chargers concerning playing surfaces and to determine whether they were negligent, as Patrick claims, would require evaluating whether they complied with those obligations.  Consequently, the Court held, Patrick’s claims were completely preempted.

Returning to Section 301, that statute provides federal courts with jurisdiction to hear claims for breach of a CBA.  However, “Section 301 preclude[s] an employee bound by a CBA from suing before exhausting bargained-for arbitration procedures.”  The NFL-NFLPA CBA contains grievance arbitration procedures which Patrick did not pursue.  Consequently, his claims against the NFL and Chargers were barred by Section 301 and dismissed in their entirety.

Ready for Kickoff

Patrick’s counsel has indicated that they will ask the Court for reconsideration.  Barring success there, Patrick is unlikely to now pursue a grievance under the CBA because of the CBA’s strict 50-day statute of limitations.  Instead, Patrick would be left to pursue his claims against the remaining defendants, including ESPN and SoFi Stadium.  The parties’ respective faults will of course be difficult to determine, but Patrick still has a couple of deep pockets at which to take aim.

Deubert is Senior Counsel at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP.