By Leigh Jones
(Reuters) - The "pay-for-pain" scandal roiling the National Football League could give a big boost to lawsuits already filed against the NFL by hundreds of former players alleging long-term injuries from concussions they suffered while at play.
Attorneys representing nearly 400 former NFL players who have filed fraud and negligence actions against the NFL said Monday that they are considering adding claims related to the bounty scandal uncovered within the New Orleans Saints and possibly involving at least three other NFL teams.
Claims related to the bounty system, in which defensive players were paid for "big hits" that took opponents out of play, could help plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuits overcome a major hurdle they face in bringing the actions due to collective bargaining agreements between the teams and players.
"It would help us enormously," said Tom Girardi, an attorney in Los Angeles representing hundreds of former NFL players in the concussion actions.
News of the bounty scheme came to light in an NFL announcement on Friday that New Orleans Saints defensive players were paid for big hits that took opponents out of play.
By Sunday morning, four NFL teams were linked to the pay-for-pain scandal as reports of bounty programs at the Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans emerged in The Washington Post, the Buffalo News and The New York Times.
Girardi said his law firm was conducting an investigation to determine if it should add pay-for-pain claims. He also said three former players had contacted him inquiring about possible representation. He declined to identify them.
An NFL spokesman Greg Aiello did not respond to a message seeking comment. Beth Wilkinson, an attorney representing the NFL, was not immediately available for comment.
Larry Coben, a Philadelphia lawyer representing about 60 concussion plaintiffs, said his firm was considering whether to add claims related to the bounty scandal. "We're looking at the issue to see if it warrants adding claims," he said.
The NFL collective bargaining agreement in general prohibits players and former players from filing lawsuits against their teams in court and instead requires them to bring any disputes to arbitration. The NFL asserts that the concussion lawsuits violate that agreement and should be resolved in arbitration.
The plaintiffs contend that they are entitled to file the actions in court because of the alleged fraudulent conduct of the NFL, which, they assert, lied about the dangers of repeated concussions.
Adding claims that the players received concussions due to a tackle rewarded by the bounty system, which violate NFL rules, would bolster the players' arguments that the collective bargaining agreement does not apply because of the misconduct.
Including new claims supported by evidence of widespread reward payments could be "potentially devastating" to the NFL in the concussion cases, said Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School.
The difficulty, however, will be in proving that a player's concussion was the result of a rewarded hit, he said. "Causation will be a huge issue," he said.
The 22 concussion lawsuits filed since August by former players in state and federal courts were consolidated on January 31 in federal court in Philadelphia.
In coming weeks, the plaintiffs are expected to file a master complaint with consolidated claims against the NFL. That complaint may include claims related to the bounty schemes, Coben said. He added that plaintiffs must believe that any claims made are provable in order to include them.
(Reporting by Leigh Jones; Editing by Tim Gaynor)