Jonathan Bilyk Nov. 26, 2013, 8:10am

Three men who suffered injuries while playing for a professional indoor football team will not be able to collect workers’ compensation benefits after an appeals panel backed a lower court’s determination that an insurance company was not obligated to pay their claims because the players were not employees of the insured entity.

A panel of the Second District Appellate Court in late September affirmed the ruling of Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Eugene G. Doherty, who had granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiff West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. in its suit against three professional football players who had been hurt while playing for the Rock River Raptors of the Continental Indoor Football League.

Justice Robert D. McLaren delivered the opinion, and Justices Kathryn Zenoff and Mary Seminara-Schostok concurred.

Attorney Gregory Szul, of Greg Tuite & Associates in Rockford, represented the defendants. Thomas F. Lucas and Sumi Yang, both of McKenna Storer in Chicago, represented the plaintiff, West Bend.

The matter arose after the football players, Maurice Talton, Robert Lash and Jaa Valentine, were injured in the spring of 2009 while playing under contract for the Rock River Raptors, which played its home games in Rockford.

At that time, the three players filed for workers’ compensation benefits with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission.

The claims were then relayed to West Bend, which had provided coverage to the team’s employees through a policy issued to a company, known as Championship Investments LLC, which reportedly owned both the Raptors and an outdoor football team affiliated with the North American Football League known as the Wisconsin Wolfpack.

However, that ownership relationship did not begin until 2009, when Championship’s president, Jordan Kopac, used another corporate entity he headed, JFK2 LLC, to become a general partner in Raptors Football Owners Club LP, the corporate entity that operated the Raptors team.

That situation established doubt over who owned the team, and thus, whether West Bend was obligated to pay the workers’ compensation benefits, which were being claimed under the policy it had issued to cover Championship Investments’ Wisconsin Wolfpack.

When West Bend learned of the ownership situation, and that the Raptors’ players injuries had occurred in Illinois, the insurer canceled benefits to the players and filed a motion in court asking for a judgment that it was not responsible for the Raptors’ players compensation claims.

In May 2012, the trial court judge sided with West Bend. Despite headings on the players’ contracts indicating that the employment agreements were with Championship, the judge ruled that the “express definitions” of the contract indicated that the players were actually employees of the Raptors team, and as such, were not eligible for workers’ compensation coverage through West Bend.

The players and the various entities affiliated with the Raptors appealed the decision, arguing that the judge failed to consider evidence based on the actual business practices of the organization, to which Kopac had testified,  to determine if the employees were actually employees of the Raptors, and not Championship, as the defendants asserted.

The appellate justices, however, also sided with the insurer, affirming the lower court decision that despite the “parol evidence” – or the verbal evidence outside the language of the contract – the players were employees of the Raptors, and not Championship, and were not covered under the policy issued to Championship.

“Championship was connected to the Raptors only tangentially, through Kopac,” the justices wrote in their ruling.

“Accordingly, even after considering the parol evidence, we determine that there is no genuine issue of material of fact regarding whether Championship was defendants’ employer,” the justices held. “The record indicates that there was no employer-employee relationship between Championship and defendants.”

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