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Painkiller Lawsuit Against NFL Revived by Ninth Circuit

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Originally filed in 2014, a lawsuit by and on behalf of former NFL players claiming the league was complicit in long-term damage and addiction to painkillers has gone through a few ups and downs. A federal judge dismissed the proposed class-action, finding that the players' collective bargaining agreement with the league required players to turn to arbitration to resolve the dispute. (Meanwhile another painkiller lawsuit was filed and cleared that hurdle.)

This week, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the prior dismissal of the original lawsuit, finding "the district court erred in holding that the players' claims were preempted."

Role and Requirements in Distributing Drugs

"If the NFL had any role in distributing prescription drugs," Judge Richard Tallman wrote, "it was required to follow the laws regarding those drugs." The lawsuit, filed by Richard Dent and claiming to represent over 1,000 retired players, claims the NFL instructed team doctors to dole out opioids and other painkilling drugs without prescriptions and without warning players of harmful side effects. While U.S. District Judge William Alsup determined the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) precluded litigation on the issue, the Ninth Circuit disagreed:

[W]hether the NFL breached its duty to handle drugs with reasonable care can be determined by comparing the conduct of the NFL to the requirements of the statutes at issue. There is no need to look to, let alone interpret, the CBAs.

Can't Bargain Liability Away

The league also tried to limit its duty of care to current and former players between the sidelines of the CBA, asking the court to "interpret the CBAs to determine the scope of the obligations the NFL and Clubs have adopted vis a vis the individual clubs' physicians and trainers." The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument as well:

[L]iability for a negligence claim alleging violations of federal and state statutes does not turn on how the CBAs allocated duties among the NFL, the teams, and the individual doctors. Regardless of what (if anything) the CBAs say about those issues, if the NFL had any role in distributing prescription drugs, it was required to follow the laws regarding those drugs. To the extent that the plaintiffs allege they were injured by the NFL's violation of those laws, their claims can be assessed without any interpretation of the CBAs

So continues another legal headache for the league.

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