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Touchdown For Employers on CA Jurisdiction Issue

November 12th, 2012

Some of your humble blogger’s readers really like football.  And some are interested in workers’ compensation.  For that narrow sliver of overlap, I offer the following post, which relates the story of the recent writ denied case of Michael Barrow v. Dallas Cowboys Football Club.  The issue raised in that case was whether California had jurisdiction of Mr. Barrow’s claim of cumulative trauma while playing for various football teams, allegedly sustained from 1993 to 2006.  Interestingly, Mr. Barrow had never played a single game in California, and so could not claim jurisdiction on those grounds.

So, what was Mr. Barrow’s theory?  How was he hoping to “score a touchdown” against his employers?  (Get it?  Because it’s a story about football?)  California sets its jurisdiction for out-of-state injuries based on where the contract of hire was completed.  (See Labor Code sections 3600.5(a) and 5305).  Therefore, an employee who signs his employment contract in California, or orally accepts the terms of employment over the phone while physically in California, can later invoke California jurisdiction.

But Mr. Barrow didn’t live in California, nor was he in California when he signed any of his contracts.  His theory relied on his attorney and agent, who had an office in Los Angeles.  This attorney negotiated all of Mr. Barrow’s contracts and communicated their terms to him by phone.  When Mr. Barrow became inclined to accept, he would tell his attorney, who would then call the team office and let them know.  Mr. Barrow was then flown out to that office and signed the contract in person.

Isn’t that enough?  After all, the lawyer was in California and there were phone calls made and shouldn’t California be able to give a proverbial arm and an equally proverbial leg from the football teams to Mr. Barrow?  After all, he’s suffered so much, just look at this video of him suffering as he takes what meager employment he can due to his severe injuries…

Well, the workers’ compensation Judge agreed.  The WCJ found that, in communicating his intent to accept to his lawyer, who was in California, and then having his lawyer communicate this intent to the team with which Mr. Barrow was signing on, California jurisdiction was activated.

The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, however, was not persuaded.  Although the WCAB recognized that California has jurisdiction over injuries sustained out of an employment contract accepted within the state, this requires the presentation of “sufficient evidence to show that the contract was actually accepted, and thus became binding, within California’s borders.”

The fact that, after all was said and done, applicant still had to fly out to and sign a contract, proves fatal to any argument in support of California’s jurisdiction.  The employment contract became binding somewhere other than California.

So, what lesson can employers take away from this case?  It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional sports team or a hospital or a widget factory – if you’re interested in hiring someone who resides in California for work outside of California, make sure they have to travel to the nearest town in Nevada, Arizona, or Oregon to sign their contract of employment.  It might sound silly to waste a plane ticket in our modern world of scanners, e-mail, and genetically engineered (and delicious) carrier pigeons – but it’s worth it.

California is one of the most expensive states when it comes to workers’ compensation, and the cost of litigation alone (not to mention medicals and permanent disability indemnity) will quickly outpace this simple precaution.


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