By Emily Cox
The Ninth Circuit reversed a class action dismissal Thursday from former players who allege the National Football League (NFL) encouraged painkiller abuse, including opioids, ruling that the lower court was wrong in its conclusion that the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) preempted NFL painkiller class action claims.
The panel’s opinion indicates that the LMRA does not bar the players’ negligence and other claims, because the court can evaluate their claims without cross-referencing their collective bargaining agreements. The court further found that the retired players are not only claiming that the league failed to intervene to prevent medication abuse by its teams, but that it coordinated illegal painkiller distribution for years. Furthermore, NFL doctors and trainers gave players medications without telling them what they were or potential side effects.
“The first question is whether the right at issue — the players’ right to receive medical care from the NFL that does not create an unreasonable risk of harm — arises from the CBAs,” the panel wrote. “It does not.”
NFL Painkiller Lawsuit and Collective Bargaining Agreements Assertions
The collective bargaining agreements do not require the league to provide medical care to players. And, according to the panel, that’s not even what the players are basing their claims on. The panel indicated that the players aren’t claiming the league violated the agreements at all. Instead, the players are maintaining that the NFL violated state and federal laws.
Whether the NFL breached it obligation to handle these drugs with reasonable case, the court said could be determined by analyzing its behavior in comparison to the requirements of the laws governing potentially dangerous drugs like the Controlled Substances Act.
“There is no need to look to, let alone interpret, the CBAs,” the panel wrote.
The court also rejected the league’s assertion that the players hadn’t adequately exhausted the collective bargaining agreements’ grievance procedures, because the players are not alleging that the NFL failed to comply with those terms. A California federal judge originally tossed the lawsuit in December 2014.
NFL Painkiller Class Action
Richard Dent and Jim McMahon originally filed the lawsuit in 2014. The 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champions claim that teams use opioids, anti-inflammatories, and local anesthetics without incumbent prescriptions and negligible regard for players’ medical histories and potentially fatal interactions with other medications.
The players allege the NFL encouraged them to take painkillers to keep players on the field and revenues up. They also say that they received pills in small manila envelopes with no directions or labeling.
“I believe that this decision will have far-reaching impact, not just for the NFL and other professional sports leagues who have consistently tried to use the collective bargaining agreements to bar lawsuits brought against them, but for labor law generally,” counsel for the players told Law360 on Thursday. “We are also extremely happy for our clients who have waited many years to have their day in court.”
The Ninth Circuit is also currently considering a similar lawsuit. In this lawsuit, players assert that a lower court wrongly dismissed their claims as being time-barred, because they only recently learned of the league’s widespread scheme to administer pain medications recklessly.