Life after the Chicago Bears: Ex-players have collected $12.8M in Workers' Comp since 2000

By Dan Churney | Mar 21, 2018

Matt Forte ground out almost 10,000 yards rushing as a running back, scoring 75 touchdowns in the process, during 10 seasons in the National Football League, including eight with the Chicago Bears.

The gridiron star also racked up $43 million in pay before retiring after the 2017-18 season at age 32 because of knee injuries.

Now, Forte is trying to get money for those injuries through the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act.

In Illinois, workers injured on the job – even professional athletes - can file a wage loss differential claim, entitling them to two-thirds of their wage loss – the difference between pre-injury and post-injury pay – receivable to age 67, or five years after the claim is made, whichever is later. The money is paid by the employers' Workers' Compensation insurance carrier.


Keefe  

There is a cap on wage loss awards, limiting employees to the average weekly wage in Illinois, but anyone earning $1 million or more per year, such as an NFL player, would be eligible for the maximum annual award of $55,971. The payouts are not taxable.

A football team is particularly susceptible to compensation claims, because, apart from the violent nature of the game, teams carry 53-man rosters, with many other players coming and going throughout the season.

The majority of compensation cases end in lump sum, one-time only payments through settlements with the insurance carrier, according to Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission records.

Gene Keefe, a lawyer with Chicago's Keefe, Campbell, Biery and Associates who defends against compensation claims, said compensation to wealthy athletes is “warping” the system.

“It doesn't match reality. And the Bears just don't fight the cases anymore. They settle instead of going to court and making the player a hero,” Keefe said.

Keefe drew attention to Roger Stillwell, who had a two-year NFL career with the Bears in the 1970s that was ended by injury. Stillwell became a travel agent making $400,000 per year, but still applied for Workers' Compensation for his football injury. Keefe said Stillwell's case was one of the first to call into question compensation for professional athletes.

On the other side, George Atallah, of the NFL Players Association, told the Associated Press last year compensation benefits “provide a lifeline to players whose athletic careers end suddenly.”

In Matt Forte's case, the rusher wants compensation for injuries to his back, neck, wrist, ankle, shoulders and knees, dating back to 2010. Forte is seeking the maximum compensation allowed, according to state records.

The Bears may not hold a grudge over Forte's case, as they agreed to sign Forte to a one-day contract so he can retire as a Bear, according to a statement from Forte in early March.

The bench is deep when it comes to former Bears players looking for compensation, with hundreds having put in for payments, according to state records.

Lamarr Houston, a linebacker, said his right knee was injured in a 2014 game and his left knee in 2016. Another linebacker, Jon Bostic, said his back was injured in 2014 and his right ankle in 2015. Defensive end Henry Melton suffered a lower back injury and a concussion in 2012 and 2013 respectively, according to records.

Many other onetime players have settled their cases, including Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester, Tommie Harris and Charles Tillman.

In Urlacher's case, he settled with his former bosses in 2017 for $550,000, for claims filed between 2009 and 2014, covering his neck, back, hands, wrist, legs, knees and shoulders.

Cade McNown was a disappointment as Bears quarterback in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, but his shoulder injuries netted him a $220,000 settlement in 2006.

The largest amount for a single injury in recent years was $400,000 given in 2014 to wide receiver Johnny Knox for a 2011 spinal injury that ended his career.

There have been 458 compensation cases filed against the Bears since 2000, most of which involve players, with the rest comprised of off-field employees. In that period, the team and its insurer have paid at least $12.8 million in settlements.

The Monsters of the Midway make up the overwhelming majority of compensation cases in Chicago, but other Windy City teams are also represented – Blackhawks' standout Adam Burish, White Sox hurler Gavin Floyd and Cub pitcher Randy Wells have all made claims, among others who played professionally in Chicago in sports other than football.

Great Divide Insurance Co., based in Des Moines, Iowa, provides the Bears' Workers' Compensation insurance. The company declined to comment for this story.

The majority of the Bears cases have been handled by Gordon Law Group, and its predecessor Gordon & Rappold, of Chicago. In distant second place is Kenneth Wolfe Jr., of Wolfe Law in Chicago.

The Gordon firm is headed by Richard R. Gordon, with associates Robert Albrecht and Alexandra Johnson. The lawyers are relatively young - Gordon gained his Illinois law license in 2002, with Albrecht in 2011 and Johnson in 2017. The firm advertises itself as focusing on several areas, including Workers' Compensation and sports injuries, as well as representing athletes in union grievances and other matters relating to collective bargaining deals.

Gordon declined to comment for this story and the Bears organization did not respond to inquiries

State law caps fees at 20 percent for lawyers, such as Gordon and Wolfe, representing players in disputed compensation actions. In other personal injury cases, in which injuries did not occur on the job, plaintiffs' attorneys are allowed up to 33 percent.

The Loop firm of McAndrews & Norgle, and its predecessor Gurber & McAndrews, have been playing defense against the Gordon and Wolfe blitz.

Led by 54-year-old John M. McAndrews and 48-year-old Gregory Norgle, the firm includes Bryan D. McCarty and James E. Murray, focusing on defending employers in compensation cases and other matters.

Last year, the state Legislature considered a bill that would have prohibited compensation payouts to athletes beyond age 35. The Chicago Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, White Sox and Cubs all supported the change in law. The bill was bundled with a compromise of other proposed laws, set up so all the bills passed or none did; the measure failed to make it through the goal posts.

Jay Dee Shattuck, a lobbyist with Shattuck and Associates Consulting and executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Employment Law Council, described the bill as an attempt to “bring back some sanity to Workers' Comp law.”

Some states prohibit or restrict players from compensation, such as Michigan, which denies compensation to players who earn more than 200 percent of the weekly average wage in Michigan. This restriction was enacted in 1978.

The question whether players deserve compensation has been tackled by at least one court.

In the 1981 case of Palmer v. Kansas City Chiefs, a Missouri appellate court ruled Gery Palmer, an offensive guard, should not receive payment for a back injury suffered in a game, because football is a “dangerous pastime fraught with expectation of injury” and the “deliberate collision between human bodies” does not constitute an accidental injury worthy of Workers' Compensation.

Matthew Mitten, a professor of law at Marquette University in Milwaukee and executive director of the National Sports Law Institute, doesn't see the issue as being as black-and-white as the Missouri court did. Mitten's institute studies legal, ethical and business issues affecting amateur and professional sports.

Mitten noted minor league players are also professional athletes, but their average wages are below the wages brought home by the average worker, much less the big-time player.

“Workers' Compensation is important for them. It's their primary source for injury and lost wages,” Mitten observed of minor leaguers.

However, Mitten acknowledged players in the National Football League are not in as precarious a position. Mitten pointed out members of the NFL usually have injury provisions in their contracts to cover medical costs. Further, most contracts call for full season payment if a player is injured at any point in the season. 

Collective bargaining arrangements can also provide compensation for injuries. Occasionally, a player will sue another player for an injury, alleging negligence or that the injury was deliberately inflicted, according to Mitten.

Mitten noted a benefit of Workers' Compensation to team owners: An injured player can't sue the team for liability if the player accepts compensation. Mitten also said he doesn't believe Workers' Compensation insurance is a major expense, compared to the millions of dollars involved in running a team. 

As a consequence, Mitten believes compensation insurance costs don’t affect a team's ability to buy talent..

“All jobs have risks, but NFL players have much shorter careers than factory workers or plumbers,” Mitten said.

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Organizations in this Story

Chicago Bears Football Club, Inc. Keefe, Campbell, Biery & Associates

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