Court Throws Flag on NFL Player’s Claim of California Jurisdiction

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, in Larry Tripplett v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, Indianapolis Colts, et al., G054825 (June 28, 2018), found that California jurisdiction in a workers’ compensation case was not conferred during negotiations for an employment contract in California and by playing two games in this state.

Larry Tripplett (Tripplett) played professional football for The Indianapolis Colts (Indianapolis) from 2002 to 2006, for the Buffalo Bills from 2006 to 2008, and briefly for the Seattle Seahawks in 2008. After his retirement, Tripplett filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits in California, although he played games in California on only two occasions during his career. A trial was held in January 2012 on the sole issue of whether California had jurisdiction to adjudicate the case.

Tripplett, a California resident, testified that all of his professional football contracts were negotiated by his agent whose office was in Newport Beach. Tripplett admitted that he was unsure where he was when he executed the employment contract. Tripplett did confirm that he relied heavily on his agent to negotiate his employment contracts, but Tripplett “had the final say” with respect to acceptance of the contract and its terms.

A representative of Indianapolis testified that the first contract, dated July 26, 2002, was most likely executed while Tripplett attended the team’s minicamp. The Workers’ Compensation Judge found that Tripplett’s signing the agreement in Indianapolis was merely a condition subsequent to acceptance of the contract, which occurred when Tripplett’s agent negotiated the contract in California. Therefore, California jurisdiction over the workers’ compensation case was proper.

Indianapolis filed a petition for reconsideration and the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board ruled that an employee must be hired in California in order to confer jurisdiction in the state. Specifically, there must be evidence sufficient to support a finding that a hiring occurred in California “by the acceptance of employment within this state” in order for jurisdiction to apply. Since insufficient evidence was presented to prove that the contract was signed in California, the finding of jurisdiction by the Workers’ Compensation Judge was reversed.

In its review the Fourth Circuit agreed with the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board that California jurisdiction was not justified. The Court rejected Triplett’s argument that the execution of the contract was a mere condition subsequent to the acceptance of the contract by Tripplett’s agent during negotiations in California. First, the Court noted that the agreement was in writing and specified that it would only become effective upon execution. Additionally, the Court stated that workers’ compensation law has previously looked to principles of contract law to determine the location where an employee was hired. The Court’s analysis of past cases concluded that a contract is accepted when it is signed, and that the employee must sign while physically present in California for the contract to be accepted in California. In the instant case no party was in California when the contract was signed and accepted. The fact that the contract was negotiated in California was not enough to establish jurisdiction in that state.

The outcome may have been different had Tripplett’s agent been authorized to unilaterally bind his client to the terms of the contract as negotiated. However, Tripplett testified at trial that he “had the final say” over whether to accept or reject the contract. This served as additional evidence that the contract was not accepted until signed by Tripplett in Indianapolis.

The court also rejected Tripplett’s argument that playing two football games in California during his career was sufficient to confer California jurisdiction, because these games contributed to his industrial cumulative trauma. Citing Federal Ins. Co. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2013) 221 Cal.App.4th 116, 1130, the court found that a cumulative injury “occurs” when the injury “has ripened into a disability.” Each separate, fragmented exposure during a cumulative trauma is not determinative of the date of injury in a workers’ compensation case. In this case, the Court determined that Tripplett’s injury ripened into disability at the time of his retirement, and had not done so at the time he played the two games in California.

The Tripplett case confirms that when seeking California jurisdiction over an injury occurring out of state, the primary focus must be on where the employee was hired. Traditional principles of contract law, and this decision, hold that the employment contract must be accepted and signed in California.

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August 7, 2018