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Noga v. Minnesota Vikings Football Club

Supreme Court of Minnesota

July 31, 2019

Alapati Noga, Respondent,
v.
Minnesota Vikings Football Club and Travelers Group, Employer/Insurer, and Minnesota Vikings Football Club and Minnesota Assigned Risk Plan, administered by Berkley Risk Administrators Company, LLC, Relators, and Special Compensation Fund.

          Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Scott Wilson, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

          Raymond R. Peterson, McCoy Peterson, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and John Lorentz, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent Alapati Noga.

          Douglas J. Brown, Penny F. Helgren, Brown & Carlson, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for relators.

         SYLLABUS

         The employee did not meet his burden to show that the employer-provided medical treatment was an acceptance of responsibility for the employee's later-diagnosed Gillette injury, and thus did not demonstrate that a "proceeding" occurred that satisfied the statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 176.151 (2018).

         Reversed.

          OPINION

          HUDSON, JUSTICE.

         This case involves the 2015 workers' compensation claim for benefits filed by Alapati Noga, a former defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings from 1988 until 1992, who now suffers from dementia.[1] Before us are three issues related to Noga's workers' compensation claim against the Vikings: whether Noga sustained a compensable Gillette injury, [2] whether the Vikings and its insurer received adequate notice of the injury, and whether Noga satisfied the statute of limitations.

         A compensation judge determined that Noga was entitled to permanent and total disability benefits. The Vikings and its insurer appealed, and the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) vacated certain findings and remanded several issues relevant to those now before our court. On remand, the compensation judge resolved those issues in Noga's favor, determining that: (1) Noga sustained a Gillette injury to the head that culminated around his last day with the Vikings on December 1, 1992; (2) Noga should have known of the nature, seriousness, and probable compensable nature of his injury in 2004, and the Vikings and its insurer received adequate notice of his injury under Minn. Stat. § 176.141 (2018) in 2004;[3] and (3) the statute of limitations was satisfied under Minn. Stat. § 176.151 (2018) because the Vikings provided Noga with medical care that constituted a "proceeding." The Vikings appealed again to the WCCA, and the WCCA affirmed. The Vikings appealed to our court. Because we conclude that Noga did not satisfy the statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 176.151, we reverse the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals.

         FACTS

         Alapati Noga was born in September 1965 in American Samoa and moved to Hawaii in 1969. Noga began playing football seriously in the ninth grade and played the position of defensive lineman throughout high school. He suffered at that time from what he called "headaches" because of his "violent" head-first style of playing. Throughout college, Noga continued playing as a defensive lineman with the same head-first style of play, but "[i]t got worse."

         Before he completed his college degree, Noga was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round of the 1988 National Football League (NFL) draft. Noga played as a defensive lineman for the Vikings from 1988 until December 1, 1992. Noga continued his head-first style of tackling other players, a style of play that was then allowed by the NFL.

         While playing for the Vikings, Noga sustained a number of orthopedic injuries that kept him from playing games periodically, and also experienced head injuries and headaches. On occasions when Noga had a headache after sustaining a hit, he would talk to the team trainers and doctors, who would dispense Advil and Tylenol for his headaches.

         Before the compensation judge, Noga testified that there was no way to keep his orthopedic injuries from the Vikings. But, regarding his head injuries, Noga "didn't want to tell [Vikings staff] too much" because staff sometimes told him "you're always hurting." Noga testified that those statements made him feel that he should keep the head injuries to himself if he wanted to continue playing in the NFL.

         Even when he experienced headaches and wooziness following a hit, Noga continued playing. Noga was "never taken out of the game right away" if he told the Vikings staff that he was feeling woozy from a hit or a play. When asked why he would continue playing if he was feeling woozy, Noga testified "[w]hen I t[old] the doctors I'm not feeling well . . . I was told fight through it, it's my job, that's what they pay me for. I'll try my best to fight through it."

         The Vikings' training records do not contain entries of any treatment for headaches or otherwise show that the Vikings staff provided Advil or Tylenol to Noga. The training records only mention Noga's orthopedic injuries. The training records do, however, contain a notation that on September 1, 1990, Noga "did not report for conditioning" and that he left a note stating that he "had a headache."

         Noga's last day for the Vikings was December 1, 1992. He went on to play for the Washington Redskins for the 1993 season. While playing for Washington, he sustained more hits to his head. Noga's end-of season physical in January 1994 showed no history of head injuries but listed various orthopedic injuries. Washington released Noga after one season. Part-way through the 1994 season, Noga began playing for the Indianapolis Colts, but his contract was not renewed.

         Over the course of his NFL career, Noga played in 73 games over five seasons for the Vikings, [4] 16 games for Washington, and 4 games for Indianapolis. Noga went on to play professional football in the Arena League until 1999.

         In 2001, Noga filed a claim petition for workers' compensation benefits regarding various orthopedic injuries he suffered while playing for the Vikings. In connection with this claim, Noga was examined by Dr. William Fruean in 2003. In February 2004, Dr. Fruean wrote a report summarizing Noga's medical problems, which Noga attributed to "injuries while he was playing football for the Minnesota Vikings." Dr. Fruean listed 10 orthopedic issues and 2 neurological issues: "Blackout episodes from concussions from football injuries" and "Headaches episodes, from football injuries." Dr. Fruean also stated that Noga "needed to be evaluated by a neurologist for his blackout and headaches problems." Noga's 2001 claim was settled, and an Award on Stipulation, to which Fruean's report was attached, was filed in March 2004.

         Noga applied for social security disability benefits related to his "[b]ack, lower body, shoulders, and fingers" in September 2007. Although his claim was initially denied, Noga was diagnosed as legally blind in November 2008. On the basis of that diagnosis, in February 2009, the Social Security Administration determined that Noga met the medical requirements for disability benefits and that "[t]he onset of [Noga's] disability [was] . . . November 17, 2008."

         In general, Noga's medical and therapy records indicate numerous ongoing health problems, including chronic gout flare-ups, ongoing orthopedic issues, chronic pain, sporadic illicit drug abuse, sleep apnea, depression, legal blindness, and neurological issues. Noga saw multiple psychologists to address some of the mental health and neurological issues he was experiencing, including Dr. Gayle Hostetter and Dr. Laila Spina.[5]

         In January 2011, after an extensive neuropsychological evaluation, Dr. Hostetter concluded that "Noga's general intellectual functioning shows a general decline from previous functioning, with extremely low verbal memory and problem solving/ organization, meeting the diagnosis for . . . dementia." Regarding causation, Dr. Hostetter indicated that "Noga's performance does not clearly indicate etiology, although multiple head trauma certainly is indicated as an important factor." Finally, Dr. Hostetter observed that "other contributing factors, such as ...


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