9-19-11; Choice of law--Da Bears win and Da Players lose in a legal battle over where WC claims will be adjudicated and paid—Federal Court rules the team will owe Illinois and not California WC...

On a preliminary basis, we first want our readers to understand workers’ compensation benefits are not designed to be exclusive—one can receive WC benefits on a concurrent basis from two or more states. It is also possible to receive state and federal WC benefits at the same time. This ruling doesn’t really appear to address that potential.

In order to receive concurrent benefits from different WC systems, you have to qualify under the rules of each system. For example, one could be hired in IL and injured in Indiana—if each respective state provides benefits due to the site of being hired and the site of the work injury, the employer would owe benefits from each state with a credit being afforded for anything paid. Basically, the injured worker gets the highest possible deal.

In the ruling analyzed below we do not note either the labor arbitrator of the U.S. District Court judge considered the three major factors in determining which state’s law might apply—site of the injury, state of hire or place where most of the work was performed. We are not aware of prior rulings where contract language overrode the applicability of state workers’ comp legislation. As WC law professors, we remain uncomfortable with this ruling—we don’t feel it follows traditional precepts of WC law because we don’t feel you can contract away such rights. We caution Illinois risk managers and claims handlers, we don’t feel an Illinois employers can create a contract to force Illinois workers to accept WC benefits from states outside Illinois if they are injured working in Illinois. In this ruling, the Chicago Bears Football Club was able to strip the workers’ rights to bring a WC claim in California—we aren’t California lawyers and don’t know how a California hearing officer would rule on the issue. We are fairly sure the IL Workers’ Compensation Commission wouldn’t follow such a contract proviso.

Either way, three former Chicago Bears players have lost a bid to pursue workers' compensation claims in California. U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo on Tuesday confirmed an arbitrator's decision requiring Michael Haynes, Joe Odom and Cameron Worrell to take their claims to the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission.

Judge Bucklo agreed with a labor arbitrator who ruled the former players violated their contracts with the Bears by seeking workers' compensation benefits in California. The labor arbitrator based her decision on provisions in the contracts that require any WC claims for benefits be decided in Illinois under Illinois law. Judge Bucklo also said she was required to accept the labor arbitrator’s interpretation of the players' contracts with the Bears, as well as her legal and factual conclusions. She felt the legal standard for vacating an arbitrator's award was very high. Judge Bucklo said a party must show that the award is counter to well-defined public policy as determined by specific statutes and legal precedents.

District Court Judge Bucklo noted the players argument was the labor arbitrator's decision was contrary to California public policy. She conceded judges have more leeway to overturn a labor arbitrator's award when it runs counter to public policy. But Bucklo indicated said she did not understand — and neither the players nor the Bears explained — how or why the public policy of California was relevant to the case. The players did not dispute Illinois law governed the formation and interpretation of their contracts with the Bears. She said the players also did not dispute that the Bears are located in Chicago and that they performed the contracts in Illinois. And the former players did not dispute they and the Bears negotiated the contract provisions calling for disputes to be decided in Illinois under Illinois law.

The name of the claim is The Chicago Bears Football Club Inc., et al. v. Michael Haynes, et al. No. 11 C 2668. We appreciate your thoughts and comments.