Steelers Not Liable for Attorney Fees in Player’s Workers’ Comp Case

By Sheena Harrison

Apr. 24, 2012

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a right to contest a former player’s workers compensation claim and therefore do not have to pay the player’s attorney fees, a Pennsylvania appellate court said last week.

In Chidi Iwuoma vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Iwuoma sought to have his attorney fees paid after the Steelers contested his disability benefit award.

Iwuoma played for the Steelers at various points between 2002 and 2007, with a few short stints with other National Football League teams during that time. Iwuoma was cut from the Steelers in 2007.

After a two-month contract with the Tennessee Titans expired in 2008, Iwuoma sought workers comp benefits for a left-shoulder injury, concussion-related injuries and a left-wrist injury suffered during his time with the Steelers. A workers’ comp judge awarded disability benefits in 2010 to Iwuoma.

The judge also required the Steelers to pay Iwuoma’s attorney fees. In his decision, the judge said that the team should not have contested benefits because its own medical staff treated and verified Iwuoma’s injuries.

In its appeal, the Steelers said they did not contest the injuries, but rather whether Iwuoma was disabled by them. The question was based on Iwuoma’s time with the Titans, as well as workouts that he attended with at least four NFL teams after leaving the Steelers.

In an unpublished decision on April 18, a panel of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court unanimously ruled that the Steelers should not pay Iwuoma’s attorney fees because the team’s challenge was reasonable.

“The record establishes that through December 2007, even (Mr. Iwuoma) believed he could play professional football,” reads the ruling, which upholds Iwuoma’s disability benefits. “It was only after he played with the Titans that Claimant came to believe he could not. Given the evidence presented, we conclude that Claimant’s disability as of Sept. 2, 2007, was a genuinely disputed issue and, thus, Employer’s contest was reasonable.”

Sheena Harrison writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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