Over the past 20 years, the Chicago Bears have spent nearly $12.5 million to settle workers’ compensation claims filed by 141 players. And now they’re pushing to change Illinois law in hopes they’d have to pay less money to injured players.
From the horrific spinal injury that ended Johnny Knox’s football career to the multiple traumas suffered by linebacker Lance Briggs, Bears players have agreed to settle injury claims in that period for an average of $87,985.
The team still faces more than 144 additional claims from 55 other players, including Brian Urlacher, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White. That’s according to data from the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, the state agency that oversees claims from injured workers.
The Bears are tops among Chicago teams in terms of the number of professional athletes filing workers’ compensation claims. The team has faced four times as many cases as the combined total filed against the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox.
The Bears have had 410 workers’ compensation cases filed against the team since 1997. The Bulls, on the other hand, had just two injury claims — and neither involved a player.
The Bears say the amount they pay for injury settlements — topped by the $400,000 payment to Knox — could be substantially reduced if the state of Illinois would make a change to its workers’ compensation law, which is among the most generous in the country.
With support from the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and Sox, the Bears have asked state legislators to amend the law regarding the age limit for “wage-differential payments” — money that workers can collect until age 67 if job-related injuries force them into lower-paying positions. Wage-differential payments are supposed to cover the difference between the previous and current jobs but, in Illinois, can’t exceed $55,000 a year. These payments are covered by the employer.
The five biggest Chicago sports teams want the wage-differential limited in most case to age 35 for pro athletes because their playing careers wouldn’t typically last much past that, certainly not to 67. The bill is pending in the Illinois Senate.
Despite the efforts to change the law, there isn’t a single pro athlete in Illinois who actually has gotten the wage-differential payment, state records show. That’s because they opt instead for a lump-sum payment to settle their claims.
Still, Cliff Stein, the Bears’ general counsel, says lowering the age limit would probably reduce some settlements as well as the insurance premiums the Bears pay for workers’ compensation coverage, saving the team money.
“It’s a very high-risk business with a lot of claims,” Stein says. “As a result, your deductibles and premiums are very high.”
He says what the Bears are seeking is “somewhat of an even playing field” with football teams in other states that provide injured athletes with fewer benefits or none at all, such as Florida.
Of course, the National Football League Players Association — which says it gives each NFL team about $2 million a year to cover insurance premiums for workers’ comp — and attorneys for the athletes don’t want the law changed. They know the Bears pay higher settlements to injured players to avoid having to make monthly payments until a player’s 67th birthday and want that to continue.
“The fact that it’s there means they have to pay more,” says attorney Richard Gordon, who has filed workers’ compensation claims on behalf of dozens of athletes, including Knox and Urlacher as well as visiting players hurt at Soldier Field, who can file claims in Illinois rather than their home state, where the benefits might be less generous.
“These are guys who work hard every day,” Gordon says. “They give their bodies up for their employment. They should be compensated for their injuries, just like a steel worker. These are players with lifelong injuries who are going to need hip replacements, spinal fusions. It’s easy to look at these guys as millionaire athletes who don’t deserve special treatment. But there are hundreds of athletes who make less than $100,000 a year.”
Over the past two decades, the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and Sox have been hit with a total of 511 workers’ compensation claims, with many athletes filing more than one claim. The teams have spent nearly $14 million to settle 319 of the claims. Fourteen cases were dismissed. The others are pending.
Not all athletes file workers’ comp claims seeking payment for work-related injuries. Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Rex Grossman suffered injuries while playing for the Bears but hadn’t filed any claims in Illinois. Workers have three years to file a claim in Illinois. So Cutler could still file claims for injuries from his final three seasons with the Bears.
Here’s a look at some on-the-job injury cases filed over the past two decades against the five teams seeking to change the state law:
• Knox, now 30, got the biggest settlement of any Chicago athlete when the team paid him $400,000 in 2014 over the spinal injury. Knox had fumbled a pass on Dec. 18, 2011, and was hit by a defensive back from the Seattle Seahawks, bending his back toward his heels. That ended his football career. He was 25.
• Former Blackhawks forward Ben Smith agreed to a settlement of $74,776 to settle four workers’ comp cases he filed in 2014 relating to injuries suffered while playing for the team and its minor league affiliate, the Rockford Icehogs. Smith is now with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Overall, the Hawks paid $304,946 to settle 19 claims. Another 18 claims are pending, two involving forward Dennis Rasmussen.
• The Bulls haven’t had a single workers’ comp case filed by a player, not even the often-injured Derrick Rose or Joakim Noah. But two cases have been filed by Joseph Blum and Andrew Krueger, who injured their knees while working as tumbling entertainers at the team’s home games. The Bulls settled the two cases for a total of $24,331.
• Cubs pitcher Randy Wells accepted a $280,000 settlement from the team over injuries to his right elbow during spring training in 2011 and during the 2012 regular season, the year before he retired. His 2016 settlement includes a wage-differential payment for four and a half years.
The Cubs have paid $659,925 to settle 23 workers’ comp cases. Four other cases were pending involving three former players: Ryan Kalish, Thomas Neal and Ryan Sweeney.
• White Sox catcher Toby Hall got a $115,000 settlement over his injured right shoulder — the team’s largest settlement for a player.
Overall, the team spent $467,575 to settle 15 injury claims, including one involving the death of a videographer. The Sox have 10 pending cases, including four filed by pitcher Gavin Floyd, who was recently released by the Toronto Blue Jays.
Besides the five teams seeking to amend the wage-differential law, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission has presided over cases involving other athletes, including 45 hockey players from the Rockford Icehogs, 26 hockey players from the Chicago Wolves, seven soccer players from the Chicago Fire and seven basketball players from the Chicago Sky, including former star Elena Delle Donne.
The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission has also handled cases filed by athletes from visiting teams, including David Scatchard, who reached a $700,000 settlement in 2014 with the St. Louis Blues hockey team for various injuries. His attorney declined to comment.
“There are players in other states filing in Illinois now,” says Stein, the Bears’ chief counsel. “It’s forum-shopping. It burdens the system here.”
Stein declined to speculate why the Bears have more workers’ comp cases than Chicago’s other teams.
The player’s association says it’s because football players rarely have guaranteed contracts from their teams, unlike baseball, basketball and hockey players.
Former Bears quarterback Jim Miller, who separated his shoulder during a playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles in January 2002, struck a deal with the team seven years ago to settle seven cases for $225,000 rather than seek a lifetime of payments.
“In football, you body is your resume,” says Miller, now a Bears analyst on Comcast Sports. “Anytime you get an injury, you call your workers’ comp attorney.
“The thing that’s going to cause you to leave the NFL is you accumulated too many injuries or you have a career-ending injury. I was happy with what the settlement was and move on. You can’t litigate forever.”
Contributing: Jacqueline Campbell