NFL players allowed to proceed with suit against league for alleged negligence

The official NFL logo is seen on the back of a hat in Los Angeles on July 21, 2020. (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2014, a group of 10 former National Football League players started a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco against the league, alleging that during their careers they were repeatedly given powerful pain medications that got them quickly back on the field, but were medically inappropriate. 

According to the plaintiffs, there was a "return-to-play" scheme in which the league permitted drugs, such as opioids and non-steroid anti-inflammatories, to be dispensed by the individual teams in violation of law. They asserted that the league was negligent by failing to protect plaintiffs from medical "treatments" that made their on-field injuries worse. They asked the court to certify the matter as a class action.

In the nearly seven years since, the fight the players have waged against the league has seesawed between defeat and victory with wild swings that might characterize a championship game.

When the case was first filed, the league urged that it be thrown out without trial because the claims asserted by plaintiffs required interpretation of collective bargaining agreements between the players and the teams and therefore were preempted by federal labor law.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California agreed, and in December 2014, dismissed the case.  

Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and in 2018 were successful in convincing the appellate court that their claims were partially based on conduct by the league not just the individual teams and therefore outside the scope of the collective bargaining agreements. 

The case returned to the trial court. The league took a second shot at dismissing the complaint, arguing that plaintiffs' theory of negligence was primarily based on conduct of the teams, not the league, and therefore should be dismissed since the suit was not filed against the teams.

Judge Alsup agreed and he dismissed the case a second time in 2019.

Once again, the plaintiffs appealed to the 9th Circuit. The court again saved plaintiffs, though narrowly, ruling that while two of the plaintiffs' arguments were without merit, one theory remained viable. That was that the league had "voluntarily undertaken" to supervise the administration of pain medications.  

Even that ruling was only a partial endorsement of the plaintiffs' case. The appeals court noted that the lower court had not previously determined if the voluntary undertaking theory was preempted by federal labor law. Therefore, it sent the matter back to Judge Alsup to consider that issue.

The league again moved for dismissal. 

Plaintiffs argued that they could prove their claims without requiring any interpretation of the collective bargaining agreements, thereby avoiding preemption. The league sharply disagreed.

Judge Alsup considered it a close argument. Some aspects of plaintiffs' claim could involve interpreting the collective bargaining agreements, but others might not. 

In the end, he let plaintiffs proceed to trial or summary judgement. 

Alsup subsequently entered a case management order that laid out dates for the parties to complete pre-trial discovery, produce expert reports and file future motions. He also scheduled a jury trial to begin April 4, 2022, nearly eight years after the brawl began.