Dent v. National Football League, No. 19-16017 (9th Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's dismissal of a third amended complaint (TAC) brought by plaintiffs, a putative class of former NFL players, alleging that the NFL negligently facilitated the hand-out of controlled substances to dull players' pain and to return them to the game in order to maximize profits. The NFL allegedly conducted studies and promulgated rules regarding how Clubs should handle distribution of the medications at issue, but failed to ensure compliance with them, with medical ethics, or with federal laws such as the Controlled Substances Act and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The panel agreed with the district court that two of plaintiffs' theories of negligence, negligence per se and special relationship, were insufficiently pled. However, the panel held that plaintiff's voluntary undertaking theory survives dismissal, given sufficient allegations in the TAC of the NFL's failure to "use its authority to provide routine and important safety measures" regarding distribution of medications and returning athletes to play after injury. Furthermore, if proven, a voluntary undertaking theory could establish a duty owed by the NFL to protect player safety after injury, breach of that duty by incentivizing premature return to play, and liability for resulting damages.
Court Description: California Law / Negligence / Preemption. The panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s dismissal of a third amended complaint (“TAC”) brought by a putative class of former National Football League (“NFL”) players, alleging that the NFL negligently facilitated the hand-out of controlled substances to dull players’ pain and to return them to the game in order to maximize profits. The panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ per se theory of negligence. The panel held that while the district court’s order held plaintiffs to an unnecessarily high pleading standard, it still correctly identified the main deficiency in plaintiffs’ pleading: the dearth of allegations regarding NFL behavior that violated the duty to comply with federal and state laws outlined in the TAC. In addition, the panel held that although it was evident that plaintiffs suffered serious and long-standing injuries, plaintiffs could not explain exactly what NFL actions were responsible for them, and therefore it was impossible to ascertain whether there was proximate causation. The panel held that plaintiffs sufficiently alleged a voluntary undertaking theory of negligence to survive a motion to dismiss, and the district court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, the panel held that plaintiffs’ allegations supported their theory that the NFL undertook DENT V. NAT’L FOOTBALL LEAGUE 3 the duty of overseeing the administration of the distribution of pain medications to players, and the NFL was aware that it should be providing protections. The panel also concluded that there were adequate allegations that the NFL’s carelessness in allowing drugs to be distributed as they were increased the risk of harm to plaintiffs. Plaintiffs argued that the TAC allegations supported a negligence claim arising out of the special relationship between themselves, as players, and the NFL. The panel rejected the argument because plaintiffs failed to reference a special relationship in the TAC, and upheld the district court’s dismissal of this theory. Because the district court did not consider whether plaintiffs’ voluntary undertaking claim was preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, the panel remanded to the district court for consideration in light of the relevant collective bargaining agreements, and the guidance in prior appeal outlined in Dent v. Nat’l Football League, 902 F.3d 1109 (9th Cir. 2018).