If a knee injury ends the career
of a highly-paid pro football player, is he entitled to workers’ comp? The
N.C. Court of Appeals says he is.
Ruling in the case of former
Carolina Panthers All-Pro lineman Charles H. “Chuck” Smith III, the court
said he is entitled to at least $168,000 in workers’ comp benefits, plus
medical expenses, and perhaps more. It sent the case back to the N.C.
Industrial Commission for further hearings.
Ruling Feb. 15 in an appeal by
the Panthers of a decision by the Industrial Commission, Judges Bob Hunter,
John Martin and Patricia Timmons-Goodson mostly upheld the commission’s
workers’ comp award to Smith.
Smith, who had played eight
seasons at defensive right end for the Atlanta Falcons and was co-captain of
the Falcons’ 1999 Super Bowl team, signed a five-year contract with the
Panthers in March 2000. The contract guaranteed him payments of $800,000 the
first year, rising to $4 million for the 2004 season. He also received a
$4.5 million signing bonus, a $1 million roster bonus for each season he
made the team starting in 2001, and other payments for making public
appearances. The contract further stipulated Smith would receive $750,000 in
2002 if the team cut him.
Smith sustained a knee injury
during the third game of the 2000 season and was placed on injured reserve.
He continued receiving his salary in installments of $47,059 for 17 weeks.
The remaining 14 installment payments, totaling $658,826, was injured
After off-season knee surgery,
the Panthers named Smith to the 2001 team roster, which entitled him to a $1
million bonus. But in July that year the Panthers terminated Smith’s
contract because the team said his skills had deteriorated. The team paid
him $87,500 in severance pay. Smith also received $225,000 in installments
during the 2001 regular season. In 2002, he received $750,000 pursuant to
the one-year skill and injury guarantee addendum to his contract.
Before the matter went to trial,
the Panthers agreed to pay Smith $588 per week, the maximum workers’
compensation rate in effect for 2000, until the hearing. The Panthers at
first had denied Smith’s injury was compensable under the workers’s comp
statute but changed its position in March 2002.
The Panthers argued they were
entitled to credits for the payments they made to Smith after his knee
surgery. In a July 2002 opinion, Deputy Commissioner Phillip A. Holmes
disagreed and ruled that Smith was entitled to 300 weeks of compensation at
a rate of $588 per week. The Panthers were awarded a 14-week credit. Holmes
awarded Smith workers’ comp at the rate of $588 per week for 286 weeks and
On appeal to the full Industrial
Commission, Smith was awarded partial disability compensation of $588 for
300 weeks with a 14-week credit to the team. This would result in a total
award of $168,168. Smith also was awarded payment for past and future
medical coverage for injuries, diseases and conditions resulting from the
The Panthers appealed, asserting
that the team is entitled to a greater credit than that awarded by the
commission. But the Appeals Court concluded the commission properly
classified the roster bonus, signing bonus, minicamp, workout and appearance
fees as plaintiff’s earnings for which the Panthers were not entitled to a
credit. The court also upheld the commission’s determination that a
September 2000 payment of $47,059 was for services rendered during the prior
week, including the game in which Smith was injured. Finally, the court said
the commission’s finding that Smith was entitled to 300 weeks of
compensation was supported by competent evidence.
However, the commission did not
make any findings of fact or conclusions of law regarding the $750,000
payment Smith received in 2002. The case (No. COA03-1130) now returns to the
Industrial Commission for proceedings on that and other issues.
Writing for the panel, Judge
Martin noted that “this is a rare case in which a highly-paid individual
suffered a compensable injury and occupational disease and received several
millions of dollars after his injury pursuant to his employment contract.”
— Steve Tuttle