Pension case won by estate of player

U.S. District judge awards heirs of ex-Steeler Webster additional $1M in benefits

April 27, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

The estate of Pro Football Hall of Fame center Mike Webster - a doggedly determined foot soldier during his playing days who was reduced to living in his car and sleeping in train stations in retirement - was awarded additional pension benefits of as much as $1 million in Baltimore U.S. District Court yesterday.

The ruling was a rare, perhaps even precedent-setting, victory for pro football players trying to challenge pension payouts.

Webster, who died of heart failure in 2002 at the age of 50, played 15 of his 17 seasons with Pittsburgh - including all four of the winning Super Bowl clubs - and served as the Steelers' offensive captain, earning nine trips to the Pro Bowl. He retired after the 1990 season after two years with the Kansas City Chiefs.

But the long afternoons battling a steady stream of defensive linemen in 245 NFL games led to brain injuries that incapacitated the 6-foot-1, 255-pound Webster later in life, according to U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr., who ordered the NFL's pension plans to pay Webster's estate benefits retroactive to 1991. The two sides have been ordered to calculate the amount.

Webster's estate had sued the NFL pension plans, which have offices in Baltimore. At issue was whether Webster, who is survived by a former wife and four children ages 18 to 25, was entitled to higher pension benefits because he had suffered a football-related injury that created total and permanent disability shortly after the disability arose - a category called "active football." Webster's lower benefits, about $7,000 a month, were pegged to a category of degenerative disability.

"It was clearly a big mistake [for the pension plan] to say that Mike Webster wasn't entitled to the `active football' injury pension and perhaps they might have been concerned that ... it would open the door for other players," said the estate's attorney, Cyril V. Smith of the Baltimore law firm Zuckerman Spaeder.

The pension plan's lawyer, Doug Ell, of the Washington-based Groom Law Group, said the retirement plan might appeal Quarles' ruling.

"Mike Webster received $600,000 in benefits," Ell said, "and the board unanimously concluded - and three of them are former players - that that was what he was entitled to" under federal law.

The pension board's six members are equally divided between members appointed by the league and the NFL players union.

Gary Roberts, director of the sports law program at Tulane University, said Quarles' decision would be precedent-setting - if it holds up under appeal. So far, court decisions regarding players contending they suffered disabling mental problems as a result of football ultimately have gone against the players.

Roberts added that many of those cases involved drugs, where a player argued he was pressured to take amphetamines or some other substance to enhance performance.

"If a player breaks a leg or injures his spleen, it's easier to see," Roberts said. "But mental problems evolve over time, and you may not know if the mental problem developed because of something that happened in the player's personal life or a problem with a coach."

An even bigger problem for players challenging the pension plan is that the courts have generally held that the authors of the pension plan are in the best position to decide their intent in resolving claims.

"The decision [by the pension plan] would have to be totally arbitrary and capricious," Roberts said. "For a judge to come along and say, `I know what you meant better than you' - that's not what judges are supposed to do."

After Webster's retirement in 1991, he was unable to hold onto a job and fell into a series of bad business deals that apparently drained his cash. He disappeared for long stretches.

"People who knew him said that he remained a good friend and was cheerful and could share a laugh with you," said Smith, the estate's lawyer, "but that his behavior had become erratic in terms of keeping an appointment or staying focused."

The Chiefs gave him a job working with players, but although he was on the payroll in 1994 and '95, he was able to perform little real work.

Sunny Jani, the estate's administrator and a Webster family friend, said the Steelers great suffered a host of maladies from the back and shoulder that frequently nag ex-athletes to possible lymphoma to disabling dementia and disorientation.

"It wasn't until he had an MRI [in the late 1990s] that it showed a bubble right on top of his brain," Jani said.

The estate argued in its suit that three mental health specialists, a neurologist, a psychologist and a psychiatrist, agreed Webster's disability was total and permanent dating to 1991, right after he retired.

Lawyers for the pension plan have argued that those evaluations of Webster were not done until 1998 or '99 and physicians who tended to Webster earlier did not report the debilitating mental condition. They also said that because Webster did not apply for the pension benefit until 1999, the benefits - if awarded - should be retroactive only to 1995, according to terms of the pension plan.

There is no argument that when Webster died, he was falling apart - his body spent and his mind disintegrating - a bitter end for a player who, as the seemingly indestructible anchor of the Steelers' dynasty, had earned the distinction of being called simply, "Iron Mike."

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