Running back Eric Shelton, here playing for the Louisville… (Andy Lyons, Getty Images )
A former National Football League running back whose three-year career ended after a helmet-to-helmet hit in a training camp scrimmage with the Washington Redskins three seasons ago has filed suit in federal court in Baltimore, claiming that he is being shortchanged on his disability payments.
Eric Shelton, who said he was forced to retire with what was diagnosed as stenosis of the spine, or a narrowing of the spinal column, is seeking more than $18,000 a month — the highest disability payment allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association.
Shelton, 27, has received about half that amount after the retirement board that controls the NFL pension plan determined that Shelton's disabilities manifested themselves "six months to a year" after the injury occurred and that he was eligible only for what is called a degenerative disability payment. Shelton is claiming that he should be eligible for an active disability payment because he was injured while playing for the Redskins.
"The NFL wants a good public image but isn't willing to pay people who have terrible, career-ending, really serious injuries like occurred to Eric Shelton," said Cy Smith, a Baltimore attorney whose Washington firm is representing Shelton.
According to the lawsuit filed Monday, Shelton suffers from transient paralysis, transient paresthesias (abnormal feelings in the extremities), migraines and other neurological disorders as a result of the injury. Shelton said he was unable to continue working in the pharmacy at a Walgreens drugstore because of his disabilities.
"The test does not require that you be absolutely helpless," Smith said. "It includes people like Darryl Stingley" — who was completely paralyzed — "who we recall from the 1970s, but is not limited to them. The test is whether you're substantially unable to work. Eric Shelton is unable to work. He tried, and he failed. He's a proud person who much rather would be working for a living than receiving a disability pension."
Doug Ell, an attorney for the NFL Player Retirement Plan that is run jointly by the league and the NFL Players Association, said in a statement Monday that in August, the retirement board "unanimously found Mr. Shelton to be totally and permanently disabled as a result of NFL football activities, including a helmet blow sustained during a July 2008 scrimmage with the Washington Redskins. As a result, Mr. Shelton is currently receiving total and permanent disability benefits of $110,000 per year."
Ell said the disability payment that Shelton is seeking is typically awarded to those players who are paralyzed or partially paralyzed as a result of an injury sustained while playing. In his statement, Ell said that Shelton worked in the pharmacy until April 2009.
Shelton's suit comes during a time when the NFL has started to crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits, including one on Ravens tight end Todd Heap last month. Several players have been fined tens of thousands of dollars. Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000.
Shelton, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., was not available for comment Monday. A second-round draft choice of the Carolina Panthers in 2005, Shelton sat out his rookie season with a broken foot and played sparingly in 2006 before being cut before the 2007 season. He was cut by the Redskins in 2008, two days after the injury occurred.
Smith said he was unaware that Shelton settled an injury insurance claim with the Redskins after being cut, but added that it was irrelevant to the current case. That Shelton had sustained a season-ending neck injury while playing at the University of Louisville also did not affect his disability status, Smith said.
"Whether he got worker's comp or some sort of insurance from the Redskins does not affect his right to this benefit," Smith said. "It's not a handout or anything, it's disability pension."
Smith's firm also represented the estate of the late Mike Webster in the first case against the NFL pension plan in 2005. Webster's family claimed that concussions and other injuries sustained by the former Pittsburgh Steelers' center contributed to his being disabled after he retired from football. A federal judge in Baltimore awarded his family nearly $1.2 million in disability payments. That decision was upheld after the NFL appealed.
"Based on my perspective, having handled the Mike Webster case and other claims against the NFL, their position is always, 'We're going to fight you on the benefits,'" Smith said. "It took a long time for the NFL even to recognize publicly that repetitive concussions and then this year, helmet-to-helmet injuries, were the most dangerous types of hits and injuries that you can have."
Smith wouldn't say whether similar lawsuits are forthcoming from his firm, but Ell acknowledged that several others like Shelton's have been filed.
"Beyond the question of whether there are other suits … the real question is, 'Are there other people like Eric Shelton out there?' and I think the answer is 'absolutely yes,'" Smith said.