Andrew Stewart earned a rare victory against the NFL pension plan this week as a federal judge ruled officials “abused their discretion” in denying the Cleveland Browns defensive lineman disability benefits.
US District Court Judge William Quarles Jr. ordered Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan — a benefit run jointly by the NFL and NFL Players Association — to provide Stewart with permanent disability benefits in a ruling issued on Tuesday. The judgment was made retroactive to August 2008, when Stewart initially put in a claim for disability benefits for leg and hand injuries suffered during his short career.
“I was shocked, to be honest,” Stewart told FOXSports.com on Wednesday. “Nobody ever wins these cases.”
This is only the second case the pension plan has lost in court. The other was when the estate of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster won a judgment in 2005, which was upheld later on appeal.
Stewart had already netted a small victory by getting the case in front of a judge for a trial. During February’s one-day bench trial — where a judge, not a jury, rules on the case — in Baltimore, Stewart was able to present his side of the case.
“We felt we had a really good shot,” said Michael Rosenthal, Stewart’s Philadelphia-based lawyer. “The cases are really difficult because, from a legal standpoint, the system is tilted against players.”
The plan has 30 days to appeal the decision. A message left with the plan’s lawyer, Doug Ell, was not immediately returned.
The win, not counting the retroactive payments, will mean up to $6,000 per month in added benefits, Rosenthal said.
Stewart, 46, was drafted by the Browns in fourth round in 1989. He played in all 16 games that season, but that would be the extent of his NFL career. He tore his Achilles tendon’ during training camp before the 1990 season. He was later signed by the Cleveland Browns, where he tore his ACL in practice, an injury that kept him out for the 1991 and 1992 seasons. He later suffered a right hand injury during a preseason game as the member of the San Francisco 49ers in 1993.
Stewart attempted to enter law enforcement when his playing days were through, but was unable to pass a physical. He said he is currently in need of a knee replacement and takes pain killers constantly. Stewart, who is right-handed, is unable to even take down the shortest of notes.
“A lot of times, I just sleep in the basement because it’s too hard to get up the stairs,” said Stewart, who lives in Vancouver.
Pension plan lawyers argued that since Stewart went on to play in the Canadian Football League, Stewart was not entitled to receive so-called “totally and permanently” disabled benefits.
Quarles, however, said the denial of benefits was made by a doctor who didn’t even review X-rays of Stewart’s injuries — let alone an in-person examination.
Under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement ratified last summer, the pension plan was streamlined and the “degenerative” category where Stewart was denied benefits under was eliminated. Now, there are just two tiers, both under total and permanent disability benefits.
Stewart is also of the more than 2,000 players suing the NFL over head injuries, according to The Washington Times and NFLConcussionLitigation.com