Webster's estate sues NFL's pension plans for unfair treatment

Retroactive pay sought for `multiple head injuries' suffered by late Steeler

Pro Football

May 25, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

The estate of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against the NFL's pension plans, claiming the longtime center was denied a fair pension because the plan ruled his injuries were not the result of an "active football injury."

After retiring in 1990, Webster had "multiple head injuries" and a "dementing illness" that "resulted in complete disability in terms of being gainfully employed," the suit contends.

Webster, who died in 2002, had received about $7,000 a month from the pension plans under what are termed "football degenerative" benefits, said the attorney for his estate, Cyril V. Smith of Baltimore law firm Zuckerman Spaeder.

The suit seeks retroactive benefits in the "active football" category, requiring a player to be totally and permanently disabled shortly after suffering an injury while playing. The category pays substantially more.

The NFL's pension plans, which are run out of offices in Baltimore, are jointly administered by the league and by the NFL Players Association. Each appoints three board members, according to Alvaro Anillo, an attorney with the Groom Law Group in Washington, which represents the pension plans.

Anillo said he was aware of the lawsuit, which was filed Friday, but had not yet seen it.

Webster delayed applying for the enhanced benefits largely because of his disabilities, Smith said. "He was a tough guy, someone who did not want to say to the world, `Hey, I've been hit on the head so many times it's affected me,'" he said.

After Webster applied in 1999, he was examined by Dr. Edward Westbrook, a neurologist selected by the pension plans, who found that Webster's disability occurred in March 1991 or before. Despite that opinion, the suit says, Webster was still denied the bigger benefit.

Westbrook declined to comment yesterday.

No specific dollar figure is asked for in the lawsuit, and Smith said that in pension cases, damages are the underpayment of pension and disability payments, plus interest.

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