SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. appeals court on Thursday reinstated a lawsuit filed against the NFL by former players who claim the league illegally plied them with powerful prescription painkillers to keep them on the field.
The lawsuit is not superseded by labor agreements between players and teams, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously.
The NFL had argued that the players failed to exhaust the grievance procedures in those agreements. U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco had dismissed the lawsuit in 2014, saying the collective bargaining agreement was the appropriate forum to resolve the players' claims.
The 9th Circuit panel rejected that conclusion, saying the lawsuit had nothing to do with the collective bargaining agreements. It overturned Alsup's decision.
"As pled, the players' claims do not constitute a dispute over the rights created by, or the meaning of, the CBAs," 9th Circuit Judge Richard Tallman wrote. "Their claim is that when the NFL provided players with prescription drugs, it engaged in conduct that was completely outside the scope of the CBAs."
The players say the NFL did not warn them about the long-term consequences of the drugs, which they say have left them with chronic health problems. The plaintiffs include Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and former San Francisco 49ers center Jeremy Newberry.
The 9th Circuit sent the case back to Alsup for additional hearings. The judges said they had no opinion on the merits of the players' claims and noted they could still be dismissed on other grounds.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league still expects the lawsuit to be thrown out.
"We have strong arguments on the merits of the case, which we have litigated successfully already," McCarthy said in an email. "Every claim brought by every plaintiff was dismissed for a variety of reasons, and we expect the same outcome."
The players say they received large amounts of opioids, anti-inflammatory medications and local anesthetics mostly without written prescriptions. They were given pills in manila envelopes that often had no directions or labeling and were told to take everything inside, according to the lawsuit.
"Our clients are thrilled with the 9th circuit's unanimous decision reinstating their lawsuit," said Steven Silverman, an attorney for the players. "They've shown tremendous perseverance."