Former Denver Broncos linebacker Aaron Patrick is the latest NFL player to unsuccessfully sue the NFL because the league and NFLPA negotiated mandatory arbitration before turning to the courts.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee dismissed Patrick’s case against the NFL and Los Angeles Chargers for negligence and premises liability under California law. The case concerned the circumstances of Patrick tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a Monday Night Football game last year at SoFi Stadium.
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While attempting to tackle Chargers punt returner DeAndre Carter near the sideline, Patrick kept running due to momentum. He tried to avoid colliding with a league TV official in the sideline area, but his cleats became tangled in cords, cables and protective mats near an instant replay monitor. His knee bent awkwardly as he tumbled to the ground.
The Broncos placed Patrick on injured reserve, ending his 2022 season, and the team waived the former Eastern Kentucky University star last month. Patrick, 26, remains a free agent.
Patrick contends the league and Chargers negligently permitted and maintained a dangerous condition in SoFi stadium, creating an unreasonable risk of injury. He demands compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of income including salary and forgone bonuses, and continued economic loss given the injury’s destructive impact on his NFL career.
The league and Chargers dispute they engaged in any wrongdoing. They also contend Patrick’s claims are preempted by a contractual obligation in the CBA for NFL players to seek redress through a grievance procedure before pursuing a lawsuit.
To bolster that argument, the NFL and the Chargers cite California cases standing for two propositions. First, organizers of sports owe no duty to protect players against “risks of injury that are inherent in the sport itself” and second, colliding with audiovisual equipment and other objects on the sidelines is an inherent risk of playing pro football. If they owe any duty to Patrick, the league and Charges argue, it is only by virtue of the CBA.
The Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), a federal law, instructs that claims impacting rights in a CBA or that require analysis of CBA must first be examined by a dispute resolution process found in the CBA. Gee, who presides in a Los Angeles federal courthouse, reasoned that even if Patrick can credibly argue the risk of running into cords and wires isn’t inherent to pro football, that argument still requires interpretation of the CBA—and is thus preempted.
To that end, Article 39 of the CBA establishes a field surfaces committee to oversee standards relevant to the placement of AV equipment and protective mats. Article 39 also requires that NFL stadiums comply with safety rules delineated in a separate document, the field surfaces manual. Gee explained that Patrick, the NFL and Chargers offer “reasonable [and] competing interpretation[s] of these documents.” For that reason, she wrote, the dispute concerns CBA interpretation.
Other NFL players have seen legal claims against the league come up short due to the CBA. The NFL has argued that lawsuits over concussions and long-term neurological ailments are preempted by the CBA. That defense played a key role in numerous players deciding to settle concussion cases. Meanwhile, Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Ezekiel Elliott sued over NFL discipline, but none could overcome language in the CBA that gave NFL commissioner Roger Goodell discretion to punish the players.
Preemption doesn’t always lead to NFL players losing lawsuits.
In 2018, a St. Louis jury awarded running back Reggie Bush $12.5 million in damages for injuries he incurred while playing for the San Francisco 49ers in 2015, when he slipped on an uncovered concrete surface in the Edward Jones Dome.
Like Patrick, Bush couldn’t stop his momentum when running from the field to the sideline and, like Patrick, Bush suffered a season-ending ACL tear in his left knee. Bush accused the Los Angeles Rams–which played in St. Louis at the time of Bush’s injury–of negligence.
The Rams argued Bush’s claims were preempted by the CBA, noting that Article 50 of the CBA referred to a joint committee of league and NFLPA officials tasked with evaluating the safety of equipment and playing surfaces. But U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton was unpersuaded, finding this amounted to a “mere reference to the CBA” and insufficient to trigger preemption.
In her order last Thursday, Gee stressed what she regarded as an important difference between the Bush and Patrick situations: permissible versus mandatory legal duties in the CBA.
In Bush, Gee explained, there was no “mandatory duty imposed” since the CBA only referred to a committee that lacked “the power to commit or bind” either the NFLPA or NFL on any issue. But in Patrick, the CBA references a committee that conclusively reviews and revises the field surfaces manual and instructs every stadium must meet certain benchmarks. Preemption under the LMRA, Gee surmised, is necessary for mandatory duties but not permissible ones.
Patrick could appeal Gee’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He could also bring a case in the future after going through arbitration. In addition, Patrick has sued ESPN and other parties over the incident. Gee remanded those claims to Los Angeles County Superior Court for further review.