Orange County attorney and former NFL player Mel Owens is seen in his office in this undated file photo. His firm represents at least 1,000 retired NFL players suing for workers compensation in California, thanks to a loophole.

Orange County attorney and former NFL player Mel Owens is seen in his office in this undated file photo. His firm represents at least 1,000 retired NFL players suing for workers' compensation in California, thanks to a loophole. (KABC Photo)

Californians may be footing part of the bill for the injuries NFL players suffer over the course of their careers.

Some call the NFL an industry based on hurt. Concussions are rampant, as are broken tail-bones, shattered femurs and blown-out knees.

Orange County attorney Mel Owens is a former NFL player himself. His firm represents at least 1,000 retired NFL players suing for workers' compensation in California. Many of them never played for a California-based team.

"What the NFL is trying to do is cut off every avenue of benefits for the players," Owens said. "They only place they can file now is in California because they have a right to file here."

Retired New York Giants player Christian Peter is one example. He played for three non-California-based teams over his six-year career in the NFL. Over those six years, Peter played just three games inside California.

Peter is just one of some 3,000 retired, non-California NFL players flooding the California workers' comp system with injury claims. Mark Fabiani with the San Diego Chargers explains the appeal to file in the state.

"Trial lawyers, who are very creative, figured out there was this loophole, and thousands and thousands of cases were then brought into the California system that have no business being here," he said.

California's workers' comp system is more generous than other states, and it's easier to file here. Professional athletes don't have to point to a specific injury that occurred in California. Wear and tear over the course of a career is enough, even if that athlete played just one game in California.

NFL teams have insurance, so the teams themselves and their insurance carriers pay the actual claims. But, California taxpayers are on the hook too, says state Assemblyman Curt Hagman.

"We have limited courtrooms, we have limited doctors and boards that review cases, so that's all paid by us, all employers in general," Hagman said.

The flood of claims drives up workers' comp rates for all Californians, but especially for the state's pro sports teams. And those costs may get passed on to consumers, in this case, sports fans.

"It raises the price of workers' comp here in California, for the teams located in California, who do in fact play mostly in California and because their costs are higher, their ticket prices are higher," said Dale Debber, a workers' comp expert.

It's not just the NFL. Retired non-California professional athletes from Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are all filing for workers' compensation in California.

A study commissioned by all four leagues estimates the total cost of workers' comp claims filed in California by non-California professional athletes will reach $1.2 billion.

Calvin Tiggle played for Florida's Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons and played just one NFL game in California. But he's currently suing Tampa Bay for workers' comp in California.

And Eyewitness News has learned that many players file in their team's home state, and then hit California too.

"In many cases, they file in both states and they collect money from both states, what's called double-dipping," said Fabiani. "Any way you look at it, it's a huge burden to California taxpayers."

So what could the cost of doing business in California mean for Los Angeles' chances of luring another NFL team to the city?

"The difficulty of doing business here, part of that difficulty is the workers' comp system, certainly makes California less attractive as a location for businesses including pro sports teams," said Fabiani.

Assemblyman Hagman wants to close the loophole that draws so many out-of-state players to California and plans to take legislative action this year.

(Copyright ©2014 KABC-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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