Former Pittsburgh Steelers player granted workers compensation benefits

Pittsburgh_Steelers_logo.svgFormer Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Chukky Okobi has been awarded workers compensation benefits for injuries sustained to his back, neck, and arms, that ultimately shortened his career.  The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision by the Workers Compensation Judge and the subsequent decision of the Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Appeal Board.  Okobi was on the Steelers’ roster from 2001 to 2007, in which he was released in 2007.  He subsequently played for Arizona and Houston in 2007 and 2008.

They key focus of this Decision was the Pittsburgh Steelers insurance carrier (SWIF) argument that they were not provided proper time to submit medical evidence to refute the claims of the Claimant and whether the WCJ credability determinations were reasoned.

The Court spelled out the Workers Compensation Judge’s trial schedule.   Despite the scheduling order, there were continued delays occurred on the part of the insurance carrier and it’s legal defense.

Your Honor, after the November 2 hearing, we did receive the supplemental report from Dr. Cosgrove. Unfortunately, I failed to schedule his deposition in a timely fashion and — Employer’s counsel also admitted that he did not get Colbert’s deposition scheduled and that he did not communicate any difficulties with either deposition to the WCJ. Nevertheless, Employer’s counsel requested 30 additional days in order to conclude Employer’s case. Claimant’s counsel objected. 

After two or three more weeks, the Employer’s Counsel never submitted any other exhibits in support of their position.  The Commonwealth Court upheld the WCJ findings:

Because the record in this case clearly reveals that the WCJ offered numerous reminders and accommodations to Employer, and that Employer disregarded all of the WCJ’s deadlines despite being warned that the record would close, we cannot conclude that the WCJ abused his discretion by closing the record and precluding Employer from presenting its expert medical witness and documentation of Claimant’s post-injury earnings. Therefore, the Board properly affirmed the WCJ’s decision

Furthermore, the Court upheld the findings of the WCJ that adopted the Facts set forth by Okobi, with regards to his position as an offensive lineman and how it harmed him physically.

His position required him to repeatedly bend over in a crouched position and physically fend off opposing players ranging in weight from 260 to 390 pounds with his body and arms. If the opposing team had the football, his job required him to chase and tackle the other team’s players. Claimant recounted: “[E]very single day I was bending over and thrusting at full force, bending over, extending and flexing my back in full force constantly over and over and over again for six consecutive years in Pittsburgh.” R.R. at 127a. He explained that, in order to prepare for such a physically taxing job, he worked out by running, sprinting and 12 doing extensive weight training. In order to maintain strength levels in his legs and back, he did squat exercises with weights in excess of 500/600/700 pounds and bench pressed over 300 pounds. When he felt his low back symptoms, he sought treatment from Employer’s athletic trainers that included rehabilitation exercises, ice and electrical stimulation therapy and anti-inflammatory medications. Claimant maintained that in the year leading up to his deposition, his low back has “been horrible.” R.R. at 132a. Claimant asserted that his low back pain alone prohibits him from returning to play professional football because it prohibits him from doing the training necessary to gain the strength he needs to do the job. See R.R. at 144a-145a. 

He also recounted injuries to his neck, elbow, and shoulder and his ongoing symptoms with reference to those conditions.



In support of Claimant’s position, the Claimant offered an orthopedic specialist opinion from Dr. Pifer.  Dr. Pifer testified that:

Of primary importance to Dr. Pifer was that Claimant had residual symptoms from his August 2006 disc herniation and surgery. Dr. Pifer declared that playing contact sports after an injury sufficient to rupture a disk and require surgery in which bone was removed and anatomy was re-arranged leads to a greater risk of 18 cervical spine disruption including “paralysis or some other catastrophic injury.” R.R. at 270a. Accordingly, Dr. Pifer concluded that, unlike the Arizona Cardinals’ physician, “[he] would never have released [Claimant] to play football after having that injury to his cervical spine.” R.R. at 287a. Dr. Pifer prioritized Claimant’s low back injury below his neck injury. He described that Claimant’s low back pain complaints were very typical of offensive linemen, due to their training and how they play football. He further stated that Claimant’s current low back condition is the result of the cumulative effect of Claimant’s football history since high school, and playing for Employer and then the Arizona Cardinals compounded his difficulties. 

The Court rejected all of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ arguments:

Claimant’s claim petition and his testimony make clear that Claimant suffered a single low back problem that progressively worsened over time. R.R. at 396a (emphasis added). While the WCJ may have used imprecise wording to describe Claimant’s low back condition, under the circumstances, we deem it harmless error.

Although Claimant may not have used those precise words, his descriptions of his job duties make clear that his job was extremely physical, involved intense physical contact and took such a toll on Claimant’s back that he is no longer able to play professional football. In the remaining portions of Findings of Fact 5(d) and 5(e), the WCJ described his bases for those findings. See R.R. at 396a. Employer provided no evidence to the contrary.

Both Claimant and Dr. Pifer credibly testified that due to the condition of his neck, low back and left triceps injuries caused by Claimant’s work for Employer, Claimant cannot condition and train to the degree necessary to be a professional football player. He was released by Employer and by the Arizona Cardinals because he could no longer perform at his pre-injury level. See R.R. at 128a-131a, 145a-148a. Employer provided no evidence to the contrary.

The WCJ found Claimant and Dr. Pifer to be credible. Both testified that Claimant’s level of performance and his ability to attract a contract offer would be affected by his injuries. Dr. Pifer unequivocally testified that in light of Claimant’s neck and low back instability, he is unable to work out in the manner necessary to play, and continuing to play would place Claimant at significant risk of more serious and potentially debilitating injuries. Moreover, although Claimant has owned and operated a bed and breakfast, it has yet to afford Claimant an income. Employer offered no evidence to the contrary. We can find no basis on which to disturb the WCJ’s credibility determinations and/or evidence reconciliation. Based upon our extensive review of the record, we find there is substantial record evidence to support the WCJ’s findings of fact, and hold that the Board properly affirmed the WCJ’s determination that Claimant met its burden of proving the averments in his claim petitions.

This is the second recent Court opinion involving workers compensation and a former Pittsburgh Steelers’ player.  You can review the other one here — decision denied Battles workers compensation claim filed by former Steeler Ainsley Battles.

There you go Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans.  You are up to date on the latest news surrounding your Steelers and subsequent workers compensation litigation revolving around player injuries.

Mark Buterbaugh

Attorney representing injured workers and Social Security Disability clients in Pennsylvania and Maryland.