BALTIMORE (CN) – Despite evidence from four doctors, a former NFL player says the league denied him permanent disability payments for spinal injuries he suffered in a helmet-to-helmet hit – even as the NFL touts its alleged concern about injuries from such hits. Washington Redskins running back Eric Shelton suffered a career-ending injury in 2008. He says the NFL first denied that his injury was football-related, and then denied that he was disabled, because he had worked briefly at a Walgreens.
Shelton was a running back with the Redskins when the helmet-to-helmet hit ended his career during an intrasquad scrimmage in 2008. He was diagnosed with axial loading injury, a compression along the axis of the spine beginning from the head, which can cause fractures, narrowing or dislocation of the spinal column. He suffers migraine headaches, transient paralysis, transient paresthesias (abnormal feelings in his extremities) and has not been able to work.
Shelton’s federal complaint was filed as the NFL is making a heavily publicized effort to reduce the number of helmet to helmet hits. The league has increased player fines and threatened suspensions for such hits.
But Shelton says the NFL disability plans denied him full “total and permanently disabled” (TPD) coverage, despite the evaluations of four doctors who said his injuries were a result of playing football.
“In doing so, the plan has offered no reasons; contradictory reasons; or reasons completely refuted by overwhelming medical evidence,” the complaint states. “For example, the plan originally granted Mr. Shelton a low level of disability benefits (‘line of duty’ benefits) in September 2009 based on his suffering a ‘substantial disablement arising out of NFL football activities;’ but three months later in December 2009, the Plan, without any explanation, reversed course and denied Mr. Shelton full TPD benefits on the ground that his ‘disabling condition did not arise out of League football activities.'”
Shelton originally was granted “Line of Duty” benefits from being injured during a league activity, but the TPD benefits are higher. He says the defendants – The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, and The NFL Player Supplemental Disability Plan – awarded him the lowest amount of TPD benefits on Dec. 22, 2009, claiming that his “disabling condition did not arise out of League football activities.”
Decisions on benefits are made by a two-person Disability Initial Claims Committee (DICC), subject to appeal to a six-member Retirement Board.
Shelton says, “The DICC’s December 2009 determination that Mr. Shelton’s TPD condition ‘did not arise out of League football activities’ was completely contrary to the conclusions of the three independent physicians whom the plan appointed to examine Mr. Shelton; unsupported by any evidence in the record reviewed by the DICC; and a complete reversal from the plan’s determination three months earlier when it granted him ‘Line of Duty’ benefits that his disabilities were the result of NFL football activities.”
Shelton appealed, and the defendants agreed that his disability was related to football activities, but awarded him only the lower “Football Degenerative” benefits because Shelton had worked at Walgreens after his injury, according to the complaint.
Shelton says that employment was brief and ended due to the pain caused by his injuries.
The difference in benefits between the “Football Degenerative” and TPD is about $9,500 a month, Shelton says. He seeks declaratory judgment that he is totally disabled, and full benefits. He is represented by Cyril Smith with Zuckerman Spaeder.