Employment Client Alert: Court Of Appeal Sinks Hoopster’s Comp Claim

In Federal Insurance Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (Johnson, Adrienne), B249201, the Second District California Court of Appeal, held the workers’ compensation claim of an injured former basketball player, whose sole contact with California was a single basketball game in the state, did not on that basis alone have sufficient connection with California for the WCAB to exercise jurisdiction.

Starting in 1999, Adrienne Johnson played professional basketball with the Women’s National Basketball Association for teams based in Ohio, Florida, and Connecticut. In July 2003, during the course of a 34 game season, Johnson played a game in Los Angeles. Later that year, an MRI revealed she’d suffered a knee injury, for which Johnson had surgery in 2004. Over the course of the litigation she lived in Washington State and then Kentucky.

Johnson brought a California workers’ compensation claim against the Connecticut team as her employer and its workers’ compensation insurer. Following an award by the WCJ, which was rescinded by the WCAB for failure to apportion the permanent disability to injuries in a prior Connecticut claim, the employer petitioned for a writ of review with the California Court of Appeal. Defendant contended that the WCAB did not have jurisdiction over Johnson’s claim.

The Court of Appeal held for the employer and insurer. The decision hinged on application of two U.S. Constitution provisions. The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Full Faith and Credit Clause. The Court determined that the 14th amendment prohibits a state from applying its laws when it does not have sufficient connection to the matter. It also found that the Full Faith and Credit clause requires that each state defer to the law of another state unless a state has “sufficient contact with the matter.” In analyzing whether there was sufficient contact or connection, the Court looked to the Restatement (Second) Conflict of Laws, section 181, and to California and out of state decisions. These focus principally on where the injury occurred and the situs of the employment.

The Court rejected Johnson’s contention that because the Los Angeles game contributed to her cumulative knee injury, the injury occurred in California. It cited Labor Code sections 3208.1 and 5412, which provide that a “cumulative trauma” occurs when “the employee first suffered disability” and knew or reasonably should have known the disability was caused by the employment. Since Johnson did not discover her injury until after the July 2003 Los Angeles game, her disability did not arise (and her injury did not occur) in California. Rather, “[t]he effect of the California game on the injury is at best de minimis.” Further, the court held the situs of Johnson’s employment, which it described as “often the most realistic basis for the invocation of a state’s workers’ compensation law,” was outside California. The Court concluded “all possible connections for the application of a state’s workers’ compensation law do not have any relationship to California” and therefore California did not have power to entertain Johnson’s claim.

Federal Insurance represents a departure from a string of previous WCAB decisions holding jurisdiction proper when even a small part of a cumulative injury occurs in the state. (See e.g., Houston Comets v. W.C.A.B. (Kenlaw, Jessee) (2013) 78 Cal.Comp.Cases 1153.) The decision is in line with the recently passed, but not retroactively applicable, Labor Code section 3600.5, which now mandates California law does not apply to professional athletes who spend less than 20 percent of their working days in California.

This document is intended to provide you with information about employment and worker’s compensation law related developments. The contents of this document are not intended to provide specific legal advice. This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions.

December 9, 2013