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No Federal Preemption In MLB Player’s Negligence Lawsuit

In June 2017, while making his major league debut for the New York Yankees, right fielder Dustin Fowler crashed into a wall while chasing a foul ball at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field.  Fowler seriously injured his knee in the collision, sustaining a rupture of the patellar tendon.  Fowler underwent surgery and missed the remainder of the 2017 season.  Fowler has sued the Chicago White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, contending that a negligently positioned, hidden, unpadded metal electrical box caused the injury to his knee.

Fowler’s lawsuit was filed in Illinois state court, but the defendants removed it to federal district court.  According to the defendants, because the terms and conditions of Fowler’s employment were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, his claims were completely preempted by Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), also known as the Taft-Hartley Act.  The White Sox contended that federal law governs suits alleging a breach of contract between an employer and a labor organization, and that any decision on Fowler’s claim, regardless of how it was styled in the ball player’s complaint, required an analysis of Article XIII of league’s collective bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association.

Article XIII establishes a safety and health advisory committee to plan for and maintain safe and healthful working conditions for the players.  The committee generally meets once a year or if a member calls for an emergency meeting.  The White Sox claimed the club’s duty to Fowler was limited by guidance issued by the Committee.  Therefore, the argument went, unless the committee objected to the field or stadium conditions, Fowler’s injury was not reasonably foreseeable and therefore his negligence claim fails.

The court determined the White Sox’s argument simply was not plausible.  It wrote, “[n]o club could have reasonably believed, based on the text of Article XIII, that the Committee would be able to identify safety risks so comprehensively and effectively that, as long as the Committee raised no objections, the club could simply assume that nothing in its premises posed an unreasonable risk to players.”  The court continued, “[i]t would have been wholly unreasonable for any club to delegate its responsibility to ensure the safety of its playing field to the intermittent and weak Committee described in Article XIII.”  Each club was in a much better position to assess the safety of its own premises, particularly at the level of detail involved with a hidden electrical box.

The court distinguished the cases filed by former National Football League players Dave Duerson and Richard Dent.  Both sued the league.  Duerson’s estate claimed the league negligently failed to inform players of the risk of brain injury after repeated concussions.  Dent and a group of former players claimed that the league negligently failed to curb excessive use of prescription pain medication.  In those cases, the claims were preempted by the LMRA because, the courts concluded, there were multiple provisions of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that could be interpreted to impose a general duty on each NFL team to diagnose and treat players’ medical conditions.  The courts found that, because of the collective bargaining agreement, one could conclude that the teams, and the medical experts hired by the teams, rather than the league, bore the primary responsibility for medical care and treatment for the players.

Ultimately, there was not enough substance in the MLB collective bargaining agreement to make preemption plausible.  The court determined that Fowler’s claims did not turn on any analysis of the collective bargaining agreement, and therefore they were not preempted by federal law.  The federal court found that Fowler alleged true state law claims of negligence, and the case was remanded to the state court for further proceedings.

Fowler v. Ill. Sports Auth., N.D. Ill., No. 18 C964, 6/29/18.

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