Injured Former Player Sues NFL Pension Plan

By Howard Fendrich | December 2, 2010

A former running back for the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers is suing the NFL’s pension plan, saying he should receive the highest level of disability benefits because of a spine injury from a helmet-to-helmet hit that ended his career.

The complaint filed on behalf of Eric Shelton in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on this week asks that he receive $18,670 a month — nearly $225,000 a year — in pension benefits, instead of the $9,167 a month — about $110,000 annually — that he was awarded by the plan in August after going through an appeals process.

Shelton, now 27, was drafted by Carolina in the second round out of Louisville in 2005. He signed with Washington in January 2008, then was hurt during an intrasquad scrimmage at Redskins training camp in July 2008, and waived less than a week later.

The complaint says that the “helmet-to-helmet blow … caused a permanent and disabling narrowing of his spinal column” and that Shelton has “migraine headaches, transient paralysis … and other neurological and related disorders and has been unable to work.”

“There are lots of Eric Sheltons out there, because this is the kind of injury that happens, not every single day, but on a regular basis when playing NFL football,” Shelton’s lawyer, Cy Smith, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

According to the filing, Shelton received a series of rulings from the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, which is jointly run by the league and the players’ union. There was an initial benefit of $1,140 per month — less than $14,000 a year — awarded in September 2009; through appeal, that has gone up, most recently this August.

A lawyer representing the retirement plan, Douglas Ell, said in a statement distributed by the NFL: “The plan has four different categories of full (total and permanent disability) benefits. The lawsuit requests that Mr. Shelton be placed in the highest category, which in part applies where a player is unable to work immediately following his NFL career. Mr. Shelton worked at a pharmacy until April 2009.”

Smith said Shelton worked at Walgreens “very briefly” and “was unable to continue because of neurological injuries.”

Smith has represented about a half-dozen players or their families who sought to increase disability benefits, including the estate of former Pittsburgh Steelers center and Hall of Famer Mike Webster.

Shelton’s lawsuit comes as the NFL has tried in recent weeks to use hefty fines and the threat of suspensions to cut down on dangerous hits.

“The NFL is saying one thing — which is that helmet-to-helmet hits and brain injuries are really serious — but doing another, which is refusing to pay benefits to the retired players,” Smith said.

The complaint quotes the pension plan as saying a player should receive top benefits if he is “substantially prevented from or substantially unable to engage in any occupation or employment” as the result of an injury. The complaint also says: “Shelton’s brief, failed attempt at post-injury employment at Walgreens only proved that he was substantially prevented from and unable to work.”

The six-member plan board that hears appeals includes three members appointed by the NFL and three appointed by the union.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league would not comment beyond Ell’s statement; Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie declined to comment; union spokesman George Atallah did not respond to requests for comment.

After rushing for 20 touchdowns in his last college season at Louisville, Shelton missed the 2005 NFL season because of a broken foot. He carried eight times for 23 yards and caught one pass for 6 yards while appearing in nine games with the Panthers in 2006, then was released by Carolina in 2007.

“Eric Shelton would much rather have gotten a paycheck, earn a living that way, than get a disability check. But he couldn’t work. He has along list of neurological injuries because his spinal canal has been permanently injured by this hit,” said Smith, Shelton’s lawyer. “And the pension plan is out of bounds in arguing that his attempt to work at Walgreens for a brief period of time means that he doesn’t get the highest level of benefits.”

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