Background

Jani (Estate of Mike Webster) v. NFL Bell / Rozelle Pension Fund

Jani (Estate of Mike Webster) v. NFL Bell/Rozelle Pension Fund

209 Fed. Appx. 305 (4th Cir. 2006)

Mike Webster was an NFL Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who played 16 seasons in the NFL from 1974 to 1990. Mike Webster is often considered the best center to ever play in the NFL and was captain of the Steelers for three of their four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s.

Shortly before retiring in 1990 and thereafter, Mike Webster experienced significant financial, emotional and social problems without a proper diagnosis of his medical infirmities. “Iron Mike” hired Fitzsimmons Law Offices to represent him in 1997 and filed a disability claim against the NFL. The law firm had Mr. Webster examined and evaluated by two physicians, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, which included a review of his extensive medical history.

The examination revealed that Mr. Webster had suffered multiple concussions. In the 1970s and early 1980s, head strikes and slaps were permitted by the NFL, and it is not known precisely how many concussions Mike sustained because records were not kept.

Several reports indicated that Mike Webster became homeless during some of this time. He divorced his wife and exhibited abnormal conduct at times, including significant memory problems.

The NFL awarded Mr. Webster a limited and significantly decreased disability award finding that his disability did not exist when he retired (within six months of retirement). The NFL further refused to make this limited finding retroactive to the date of retirement. The NFL’s denial was contrary to the conclusions of Mr. Webster’s four experts and, shockingly, even to the findings of the NFL’s own expert, a neurologist from Cleveland Clinic.

Following numerous appeals to the NFL Pension Board, a lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court in Baltimore, Maryland which ultimately resulted in a summary judgment completely reversing the NFL Pension Board’s denial of total and retroactive benefits to Mike Webster. The NFL appealed this matter to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, who upheld the District Court’s opinion. Mr. Webster’s estate was awarded full back benefits, together with attorney fees, resulting in an award of approximately $2 million. Retroactive benefits were also paid to his children.

Unfortunately “Iron Mike” was unable to share in this victory in which he fought as vigorously as he played football because he died during the appeal process in 2002. According to the NFL, this is the only disability lawsuit they have ever lost.

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