Court: NFL pension board 'abused its discretion'

Updated: December 14, 2006, 4:00 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

A Federal appeals court has affirmed a 2005 trial court ruling that the NFL's pension plan wrongly withheld a disability pension from Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

The unanimous ruling, issued Wednesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, upheld the lower court's finding that Webster, who died in 2002, was permanently disabled as a result of brain injuries from playing football. Wesbter was the center for the Pittsburgh Steelers' four Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1970s and played briefly for the Chiefs before retiring in 1991.

The ruling will result in Webster's surviving children and former wife collecting between $1.5 million and $2 million, The New York Times reported. Webster had been awarded a lesser pension upon his retirement, but when his family moved to have his pension reclassified with his disability occuring at retirement, the board declined to do so. The NFL's pension plan had appealed the lower court ruling.

After he retired, Webster, suffering from symptoms of dementia and chronic pain from football injuries, was unable to earn a living and became homeless. He died of a heart attack at 50.

"It seemed like we battled everyone -- the NFL, even the players' union, which should have been the first ones to support our case,' Wesbter's son Garrett Webster told the Times. "There is a sadness that my dad's not here to celebrate this, but there is also a happiness that other peoples' voices can be heard, not just NFL players but regular people with brain injuries."

A lawyer for the estate said the ruling also gives hope to other NFL players fighting for benefits.

"We're happy first of all for Mike's family," said attorney Cy Smith of Baltimore. "Somewhere up there, Mike's very happy too. We're also happy for other players that got a raw deal from the NFL pension plan."

Edward Scallet of Washington, D.C., a lawyer for the NFL's pension board, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment, but NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said no decision has been made on whether to further appeal the case.

In the ruling, the appeals court agreed with a Maryland U.S. District Court's finding, saying the NFL's pension plan "abused its discretion by ignoring the unanimous medical evidence that established March 1991 as the onset date for Webster's total and permanent disability," and did so again by refusing to set aside time the deadline for Wesbster to file a disability claim.

"In particular, the board ignored the unanimous medical evidence, including that of its own expert, disregarded the conclusion of its own appointed investigator and relied for its determination on factors disallowed by the plan," the appeals court wrote in affirming the lower court's decision.

Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, which seats members on the retirement board, told the Times the board would follow the same course of action if presented with a similar case today.

"We all feel badly for what happened to Mike Webster, but obviously there are a lot of players who go through similar circumstances," Upshaw told the Times. "But you don't just award a benefit to someone going through a tough time. That's not how it works. [Webster] wasn't denied benefits. It was the question of when those benefits should have started."

The Webster family realizes that the fight could continue.

"After all this time, it seems like they'd find some way to weasel out of it," Garrett Webster told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But it doesn't look like they'll be able to do it."