TAMPA — Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Brad Culpepper is being sued by a California insurance company that claims he fabricated ailments and injuries while leading an active life as a mixed martial arts practitioner.
Nearly four years ago, Culpepper filed for workers' compensation for injuries he suffered playing in the NFL. Doctors who examined him concluded that he was 89 percent disabled, and the insurance company, Fairmont Premier, gave him a $175,000 settlement. But what began as a claim similar to those made by thousands of other NFL players is now headed to court.
In a lawsuit filed in Orange County, Calif., in July, attorneys for the insurance company say Culpepper lied to the doctors. He is "exquisitely fit and conditioned" and "is not disabled," the suit says. Moreover, the attorneys say, he is feigning injury while taking part in highly publicized athletic competitions.
"Defendant Culpepper's conduct was fraudulent, deceptive and designed to inflate the value of his claim and to take advantage of and abuse the California workers' compensation system," the suit states.
On Tuesday, Culpepper attorney Scott Schutzman called the insurance company attorneys' version of events an "exaggeration." Reached by phone, Culpepper said he could not comment on the lawsuit.
No one disputes that Culpepper, 45, spent nearly a decade in professional football as a human battering ram.
From 1992 to 2000, he was a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, the Bucs and the Chicago Bears. Before that he spent four years playing for the University of Florida, becoming an All-American lineman and senior captain for the Gators.
After retiring from the NFL in 2001, he got a law degree, shed 75 pounds from his 280-pound frame and became a personal-injury lawyer in Tampa. In 2012, he became the lead plaintiff in a concussion lawsuit with 25 other players against the NFL.
Culpepper also began practicing mixed martial arts, a sport that combines elements from a host of fighting styles. But attorneys for the insurance company say that when he was examined by several doctors in regard to his injury claim, he did not tell them about his new hobby. Had the insurer known, it would never have paid, the suit says.
Rather, Culpepper told physicians he had many injuries, from head and knee trauma to neurological and vision problems. He reported having "quite a bit of difficulty" with "usual work activities, usual hobbies and recreational activities, driving and sleeping" and could not sit for two hours at a time, according to the suit.
"When asked if there are things he cannot do, defendant Culpepper testified that 'everything is difficult,' " the lawsuit says.
In 2013, after the claim was settled, Culpepper was a contestant with his wife, Monica, on the reality TV show Survivor: Blood vs. Water, where veterans of the show compete with loved ones. He was eliminated after 14 days.
It was "clean, old-school caveman stuff," he told the Tampa Bay Times.
Schutzman took issue with the narrative in the insurance company's lawsuit.
"This man played in the NFL for 10 years. He has multiple doctors and medical records, including 14 or 15 MRIs, which show injuries to his knees, to his shoulders, to his head," he said. "He's had injury after injury after injury."
The fact that his client exercises and has appeared on a reality TV show is not sufficient to prove that he was never injured or does not continue to suffer, Schutzman said. He also disputed the lawsuit's contention that Culpepper earned a black belt in mixed martial arts.
"He doesn't have a black belt; he has an honorary black belt," he said.
However, the website for B.A. Warrior Training Center in Tampa lists Culpepper in its Black Belt Club, noting that "you all worked hard to attain your black belts in kickboxing."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.