Synopsis of the Court Of Special Appeals’ Decision in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Tupa, 197 Md.App. 463 (2011).

NOTE: This case was granted cert. in the Court of Appeals and argued before it on May 3, 2012.

The Court of Special Appeals, in Tupa, considered whether Maryland had jurisdiction to hear a claim where the contract contains a clause stating that Virginia has exclusive jurisdiction on all workers’ compensation claims.  The court also considered whether appellee sustained an accidental injury during the course of his employment that was causally connected to his current disability and answered both affirmatively.

Thomas Tupa, Jr. signed a four- year professional football contract with the Washington Redskins as a punter in 2004.  He played his first season without injury.  Prior to the 2005 football season, Tupa sought care from a physician for minor back pain he was experiencing.  The physician discovered a “significant underlying spondylosis and stenosis,” a degenerative condition that would eventually end his football career.  Although the condition was career ending, Tupa’s physician expected the athlete to play one or two more seasons before the disease required him to retire.

During a preseason game that year, Tupa was warming up prior to the game when he landed awkwardly after a punt.  When this occurred, he felt a sharp pain in his lower back and immediately sought medical attention.  The injury Tupa sustained proved to be career ending, and has left him in a state of constant pain, making it hard for him to perform necessary daily functions.

Tupa filed a workers’ compensation claim and was granted relief by the Workers’ Compensation Commission which his employer, Pro-Football, Inc., appealed.  A new hearing by the Circuit Court of Prince George’s County also granted Tupa relief, a decision that was again appealed by Pro-Football, Inc.  On appeal, Pro-Football, Inc. argued that a forum selection clause, stating that all claims must be brought in Virginia, precluded Tupa from bringing his claim in Maryland.  They also argued that Tupa’s pain was the result of his pre-existing degenerative condition rather than the injury sustained during employment.

The Court of Special Appeals determined that Maryland did have jurisdiction to hear the case.  Pro-Football, Inc. argued that because under the Labor and Employment Article of the Maryland Code, § 9-203(b) (1), Tupa was only intermittently employed in Maryland precluding his coverage under Maryland laws.  The Court of Special Appeals found based on a factual determination that Tupa was not an intermittent employee because although he was hired and spent most of his employment practicing in Virginia, the purpose of his employment was to play football games, a majority of which took place in Maryland.

The court also held that the forum selection clause contained in Tupa’s employment contract was inapplicable because it was contrary to public policy.  The court determined that it would be against public policy to allow employers and employees to contract around workers’ compensation benefits.  Forum selection clauses will be found inapplicable when their purpose is to “diminish the applicability” of the statutes governing other states.  Based on their findings, the court determined, as a matter of law, that Maryland did have jurisdiction to hear the case and Maryland Workers Compensation would apply.

In addition, the court held that the injury sustained by Tupa was accidental and causally connected to his current disabilities.  Because this determination is made based on a finding of fact, the court may only overturn the ruling when it is not supported by legally sufficient evidence.  The Court of Special Appeals found that the facts supported the contention that the injury was accidental and a casual link to Tupa’s injuries, requiring coverage by Pro-Football, Inc.

Pro-Football, Inc. argued that because Tupa’s injuries were sustained during activities comprising the normal course of his employment, he assumed the risk of their occurrence and; therefore, the injuries were not accidental.  The court dismissed this contention defining accidental injury as “one that happened by chance or without design, taking place unexpectedly or unintentionally.”  Finding Tupa’s injuries to fall within this category, the court determined the injuries were accidental.

In addition, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that there was sufficient legal evidence for the jury to conclude that Tupa’s condition is causally related to the injuries he suffered while playing football.  In finding such, they noted that his physician had evaluated him prior to the season and concluded that he could still play football for a few more seasons without interference from his degenerative condition.  The court also noted that Tupa was not in chronic pain prior to the punting injury, further supporting the jury’s conclusion that Tupa’s current condition was caused by his injury and not his degenerative condition.

In finding that Maryland had jurisdiction to hear the case, and that the injury was accidental and the cause of his pain and current condition, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court and granted relief to Thomas Tupa, Jr.

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