Steelers do not have to pay attorney fees in workers' comp case
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The Pittsburgh Steelers do not have to pay the attorney fees related to a former player's workers' compensation case because -- although he clearly suffered injuries while with the team -- the team argued he was not "disabled" since he went on to play for other pro teams, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.
Pennsylvania law automatically provides attorney fees to prevailing claimants when employers contest a claim for workers' compensation benefits, unless that protest is "reasonable."
In the case of Iwuoma v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court found the Steelers had a viable reason to contest former special teams ace Chidi F. Iwuoma's claims of disability.
"[Mr. Iwuoma's] own testimony established that he attended workouts with at least four professional football teams after Sept. 2, 2007 [his last day with the Steelers], and that he, in fact, played professional football with the Tennessee Titans for two games in December 2007," Judge Anne E. Covey said for the panel in the nonprecedential opinion.
"The record establishes that through December 2007, even claimant believed he could play professional football. It was only after he played with the Titans that claimant came to believe he could not."
Given those facts, Judge Covey said Mr. Iwuoma's disability was a "genuinely disputed" issue as of his last day with the Steelers, making the team's contest reasonable.
Mr. Iwuoma was employed by the Steelers from October 2002 to September 2006 and from December 2006 to September 2007. In August 2005, he suffered a work injury to his left shoulder in a preseason game. The Steelers' medical staff provided treatment, and he missed two weeks of practice and games but finished the season, according to the opinion.
Mr. Iwuoma underwent surgery for the shoulder injury during the postseason and continued to have pain. In August 2006, he suffered a concussion during a game and lost consciousness. He was released by the team within two weeks. The Steelers re-signed Mr. Iwuoma in December and during his first game back, Mr. Iwuoma sustained a significant injury to his left wrist. He was placed on the injured reserve for the rest of the season.
Mr. Iwuoma re-signed with the team for the following 2007 season and reaggravated his left shoulder during mini-camp. In the first preseason game, he reinjured his wrist. He missed one preseason game but was able to continue for the rest of the preseason. The Steelers then cut him at the start of the regular season.
Mr. Iwuoma tried out for a number of teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Titans. The Titans signed Iwuoma in December 2007. He played two games for the team and his contract expired in February 2008. He was not re-signed, she said.
Over the course of several months in 2008 and 2009, Mr. Iwuoma filed four separate petitions for workers' compensation benefits related to his various injuries suffered while playing for the Steelers.
In August 2010, a workers' compensation judge concluded Mr. Iwuoma met his burden for establishing work-related injuries to his left shoulder and left wrist and that he sustained multiple concussions. The judge awarded disability benefits to Mr. Iwuoma as of Sept. 2, 2007, his last day with the Steelers.
The judge also awarded attorney fees, finding the Steelers' contest of the workers' compensation petitions was unreasonable considering the team's own medical staff provided treatment to Mr. Iwuoma, were aware of his injuries and knew they were work-related, according to the opinion.
The Steelers appealed the award of attorney fees to the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board. The team had argued that it was not contesting that Mr. Iwuoma suffered work-related injuries but rather challenging that he suffered an actual disability, given he went on to play for another team.
In June 2011, the appeal board reversed the workers' compensation judge ruling, finding the judge erred when concluding the contest was unreasonable.
Commonwealth Court found there was reasonable dispute as to Mr. Iwuoma's disability status considering that he and his doctors testified he was technically OK to continue playing, although some of the doctors testified that they wouldn't have recommended it.
President Judge Dan Pellegrini and Judge Patricia A. McCullough joined Covey on the panel.
Edward J. Abes of Abes Baumann in Pittsburgh represented Mr. Iwuoma. Michael D. Sherman of Fried, Kane, Walters, Zuschlag & Grochmal in Pittsburgh represented the Steelers.
Mr. Sherman said professional athletes present workers' compensation cases unlike any other. Under workers' compensation law, benefits are due when a work-related injury occurs and an employee is disabled because of it.
A disability usually means a stop in wages. But professional athletes get paid even while hurt and often continue to play while hurt, Mr. Sherman said. For professional athletes, an injury is disabling when they stop getting paid and that is when they stop playing. There is often a gap between the time of injury and the time of disability.
Mr. Abes said he won't appeal the ruling considering it was an unpublished decision in a case that was very fact-specific. He said he thought Commonwealth Court got it wrong, and that going forward the ruling could shift, to some extent, the burden of proof to the employee when it comes to workplace injury cases.
First Published April 23, 2012 10:47 am