The Cleveland Browns have endured a lot of problems. The once-proud organization that produced four AFC and four NFL Championships during the 1940s and 1950s, along with hall-of-fame running back Jim Brown, is now remembered for its more infamous losses: “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” The Browns also endured the humiliation of having the franchise moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have made the playoffs only once.

Off the field, the Browns now face a difference problem: a lawsuit involving former players. Just last week, a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit by former Browns wide receiver Joe Jurevicius could proceed in state court.

Jurevicius originally filed suit last June in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, against the Cleveland Browns organization, the Cleveland Clinic, and several team doctors. In his complaint, Jurevicius alleged he contracted a staphylococcus (staph) infection from the Browns’ training facility in Berea, Ohio while recovering from off-season surgery. Further, Jurevicius alleged the Browns organization, including former Head Coach Romeo Crennel, and former General Manager Phil Savage, concealed information regarding previous staph infections, made false representations regarding the safety of the training facility, and failed to take the proper procedures to prevent the spread of staph.

This is not the Browns’ first run-in with these infections. At least six former players have had issues with staph while a member of the team. Back in 2008, outspoken tight-end Kellen Winslow was chastised by Crennel for speaking out about the staph infection that put Winslow in the hospital for several days. Winslow was upset about the Browns’ treatment of the incident, including an alleged cover-up, and the failure of then-General Manager Savage to visit him in the hospital.

Following Jurevicius’s complaint, the Browns removed the case to federal court, and filed a motion to compel the entire case to arbitration. The Browns argued that Jurevicius’s claims were preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) because each of the claims arose under or required interpretation of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

Federal District Court Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr. did not agree. First, Judge Oliver noted that each of Jurevicius’s claims against the Browns were predicated on an alleged duty to warn about the existence of hazardous conditions at team facilities. Further, Judge Oliver found nothing in the CBA that addressed this duty to warn about the existence of hazardous conditions, including staph infections. Therefore, because Jurevicius’s claims did not arise under or require interpretation of the CBA, they were not preempted under the LMRA.

Lastly, because a case may not be removed to federal court on the basis of a defense, including a preemption defense, Judge Oliver remanded the case back to state court.

At this point, it remains unclear if other players will join Jurevicius’s suit, but considering the number of players previously involved with staph infections while a member of the Browns, the possibility seems high.

Nor are the Browns the only organization struggling with staph infections. Both the St. Louis Rams, and the University of Southern California football team have had outbreaks of staph infection in recent years. In light of this continuing problem, the NFL would be wise to address the issue during negotiations of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Michael S. Quinlan

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