Mike Webster to Dwight Harrison: What they Tell Us About the NFL's Disability Benefits Plan

Wow – what more is there to say about this story by Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated on the long and bitter fight by aging, 10 year NFL vet Dwight Harrison to obtain disability and pension benefits? The story itself is a beautiful piece of writing, humane and complex all at the same time.

There are a few particularly interesting aspects of the story that are worth commenting on. First, to those who wonder if the story is accurate and the picture painted believable, I can only say that none of us, without going back over the court record and filings, can really know. What I do know, however, is that the story reads like an exact replica of the Mike Webster story, which I wrote about here, which concerned that NFL star’s long battle to collect disability benefits from the NFL’s ERISA-governed disability plan, over a time period that matches up with the time period during with Harrison’s harrowing story unfolds. The similarities are eerie, and lend credence to Harrison and Rosenberg’s (no relation) version of events. One of the things that any good trial lawyer does in investigating and building a case is to look for similarities and contradictions among different parties’ versions of events, on the thesis that the consistencies are more likely true than not, given that more than one person reported them. The striking similarities between Webster’s story and Harrison’s story suggests that the story reported by Rosenberg is highly credible.

Second, and perhaps this also goes to the credibility question with regard to this story (since none of us are likely to ever go out and read the court record itself or to have access to all of the relevant medical records), everything that Rosenberg describes fits comfortably with the manner in which an ERISA disability and pension case would be litigated and processed. It rings, in essence, true to someone, like me, who has litigated those types of cases.

Third, and this harkens back to Webster’s case in which, after a long court battle, he eventually prevailed, overcoming many of the same obstacles faced by Harrison, is the interesting question of why Webster eventually did much better than Harrison has, so far, managed to do. The answer to that, quite simply, is lawyering. Webster, somehow, had access to excellent lawyering and was represented by what was clearly an outstanding lawyer. Harrison, it is clear from the article, for many years had no such access. The quality of legal representation, including the extent to which a plan participant’s lawyer has previous and substantial experience with litigating ERISA cases, makes a huge difference to the outcome of these types of cases: they simply cannot be properly litigated – particularly against a well-lawyered adversary like the NFL – by anyone who doesn’t have substantial experience and expertise in this area of the law.

Fourth, and this is particularly interesting to me, I have had the good fortune over the past few years to speak with more than one retired NFL player who had read my prior writings on the Webster case and wanted to speak with me about their own efforts to obtain long term disability benefits from the NFL. What is very interesting to me about the Rosenberg article is his description of the manner in which the NFL plan operated during the time period in question, including its tiers of benefits, all of which matches up with what I learned in discussions over the years with retired players. It is hard to make the complexities of disability plans and claim structures clear to anyone but experts, but Rosenberg does a good job here. If you want to understand the structure and operation of the NFL disability plan, his article is a good place to start.
 

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