Federal judge asked to rule on NFL player's injury case

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Kendall M. Newson caught just two passes in his National Football League career, but now the former Miami Dolphin is the star of a legal battle, fought Downtown last week, in the war between the teams and players.

Lawyers for the Dolphins asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan to put the kibosh on Mr. Newson's workers' compensation case related to a 2005 knee injury, sustained in a preseason game at Heinz Field, that ended his career. They said the claim should be decided by an arbitrator, not by Workers' Compensation Judge Pamela L. Briston.

Lawyers for Mr. Newson and the NFL Players Association countered that there was no legal precedent for a federal judge stopping a state workers' compensation case and added that such a measure would be especially damaging due to the current contract dispute between the league and players.

"There is going to be a lockout of the players on March 3, because there is absolutely no chance of reaching a [contract agreement]," said Adam J. Kaiser, an attorney with New York firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, which represents the union in contract talks and in Mr. Newson's case. The union will decertify, and "arbitrations will be almost impossible to resolve," leaving Mr. Newson in limbo.

Mr. Newson was not at the hearing and could not be reached. A seventh-round draft pick out of Middle Tennessee State in 2002, he never got a big contract and was hurt at age 25.

"He has no money," said attorney Edward J. Abes, who represents Mr. Newson, a Georgia resident, in his workers' compensation case. His efforts to work at a car wash and a nursing home were foiled by his knee, and he spends much of his time on volunteer work taking inner-city kids fishing, Mr. Abes said.

If granted workers' compensation benefits under Pennsylvania law, he would be entitled to $716 a week, plus coverage for medical expenses from the injury.

The Dolphins, though, want Mr. Newson's payments and medical treatment to be decided under Florida law. There, the top weekly benefit is $651 a week, and attorneys for the player said that Florida law is far less worker-friendly than Pennsylvania's.

The Dolphins have, for 25 years, had a unique agreement with the union. They are not required to be part of the regular Florida workers' compensation system. They instead have promised to pay equivalent benefits, but awarded through arbitration rather than workers' compensation courts.

In around 100 cases, though, players have filed workers' compensation claims in the states in which their injuries occurred, and the team has invoked arbitration. In Mr. Newson's case, the team and player went to arbitration while the workers' compensation case continued.

In September, Judge Briston ruled that the agreement between the Dolphins and the union did not prevent her from deciding Mr. Newson's case. The team then filed a federal lawsuit -- unique, according to Mr. Kaiser -- asking that the workers' compensation case be stopped so the arbitration can proceed.

The Dolphins could face "irreparable harm" if ordered to pay Mr. Newson Pennsylvania workers' compensation, said Thomas H. May, a Downtown attorney representing the team. The team would have a hard time recovering the money if such a ruling were later overturned, he said.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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