ST. PAUL — A former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman is not eligible for workers' compensation benefits from the team and its insurance providers following repeated head trauma that the former player said caused a dementia diagnosis, the state's top court has decided.
The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday, July 31, filed an opinion reversing a Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals ruling that Alapati (Al) Noga was eligible entitled to permanent and total disability benefits. Noga joined the Vikings as a defensive lineman in 1988 and played 73 games between then and Dec. 1, 1992. He went on to play for the Washington Redskins and Indianapolis Colts.
In its opinion, the court found that Noga, 53, didn't satisfy the statute of limitations to claim the benefits and, as a result, wasn't eligible to receive them. It further noted that at the time Noga played with the Vikings, scientists had not yet found the connection between head injuries, including concussions, and long-term neurological disorders.
“Noga played for the Vikings from 1988 to 1992, but medical awareness of the connection between and among head injuries, possible concussions, and the potential long-term neurological effects of those events had not yet developed,” Justice Natalie Hudson wrote in the court's unanimous opinion.
State law says that the timeframe to determine or recover benefits for injured employees is "three years after the employer has made written report of the injury to the commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry, but not to exceed six years from the date of the accident."
Noga in 2001 filed a workers' compensation claim in Minnesota for his orthopedic injuries related to his five seasons playing for the Vikings. He was reviewed by a doctor in 2003 who wrote months later that Noga's 10 orthopedic issues and two neurological issues, including blackouts and headaches, could be attributed to his injuries acquired while playing football for the Vikings.
Noga's claim was settled and he received an award for the orthopedic issues in 2004. Because Noga knew about his neurological symptoms in 2004 and because the Vikings became aware of them as part of a 2004 Stipulation for Settlement, the six-year timeframe to file a claim started, a compensation judge determined and both Noga and the Vikings agreed.
But Noga had argued that because the Vikings and its physicians treated his headaches with pain relievers at the time he played for the team, they waived the statute of limitations because they acknowledged then that he had a health issue stemming from the injuries. The Vikings argued against the assessment and the court sided with them.
"We cannot attribute to the Vikings an acceptance of responsibility — or, as we said in Livgard, 'a conscious sense of obligation' — for Noga’s later-diagnosed dementia when, at most, the care the Vikings staff provided indicated acceptance of responsibility for Noga’s headaches and related symptoms," Hudson wrote in the opinion. "Absent an applicable exception, the statute of limitations on Noga’s Gillette claim expired, at the latest, in February 2010."
Attorneys representing Noga said they respected the court's decision but were disappointed by it.
"We are concerned about the lives and well-being of retired athletes in this state who have suffered Al Noga's fate: slow, progressive dementia, caused by repeated work-related concussions that occurred decades ago," Scott Wilson, Raymond Peterson and John Lorentz said in a statement.
A Vikings spokesman and lawyer representing the team and its insurers didn't respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Noga testified that he'd experienced various orthopedic and head injuries during his five seasons playing with the Vikings and he tried to keep some of the head injuries to himself because staff had responded to his concerns saying “you’re always hurting.” He said he was later told by team doctors to fight through the pain. Training records cite reports of Noga's training injuries, the court wrote, but only mentioned one note in 1990 about Noga not attending a practice due to a headache.
The NFL at the time didn't have a protocol for dealing with head injuries or possible concussions.
In the years that followed the 2004 agreement, Noga experienced several other conditions including gout flare-ups, ongoing orthopedic issues, chronic pain, sporadic illicit drug abuse, sleep apnea, depression and neurological issues. And in 2009, he was declared legally blind. A doctor diagnosed Noga with dementia in 2011, but she couldn't rule head injuries as the sole cause.
Another doctor in 2014 confirmed Noga's dementia diagnosis and said that repeated concussions were a significant factor in causing disease, though not the only factor.
In 2015, Noga filed a worker's compensation claim citing his dementia diagnosis. Later that year, a third doctor, whom the Vikings had asked to assess Noga, said there was no causal relationship between the dementia diagnosis and the former lineman's head injuries sustained while playing for the Vikings.
A compensation judge in 2016 ruled that Noga was entitled to permanent and total disability benefits as his head injuries around the time he left the Vikings constituted “a substantial contributing factor to [Noga’s] permanent and total disability.”
The Vikings and its insurance provider appealed that decision to the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals, arguing that it had provided adequate medical care at the time Noga sustained the head injuries and that Noga's claim came after the statute of limitations.
The WCCA and compensation judge kicked the case back and forth, disagreeing on certain pieces of the case but agreeing on others until the WCCA in 2018 affirmed the compensation judge's opinion that Noga was entitled to the benefits.
The Vikings again appealed the decision, this time to the Supreme Court, which came down in the team's favor on Wednesday.
"The workers' compensation system was adopted to provide compensation and care for injured workers," Noga's lawyers said. "Under today's decision, many professional athletes in this situation will not receive that compensation and care. "