Former SAG Board Member Leslie Hoffman’s Toughest Stunt: Getting Her Union Benefits

As we watch former great athletes becomes shells of their former selves suffering the debilitating long-term effect of concussions and other injuries, it is worth wondering how Hollywood is caring for the people who rack up similar injuries performing stunts for movies and TV shows. If Leslie Hoffman is a litmus test, the answer is, not very well.

Hoffman was once one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen and the first ever elected to the SAG Hollywood board of directors, and later to AFTRA’s Hollywood board and national boards of directors. But today she’s a broken woman: Twice she has been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury that she says was the result of one too many concussions sustained during her many years of stunt work. She hasn’t been able to work since 2002, and despite her constant aches and pains and a severely injured back, administrators of the SAG Health Plan continue to deny her health benefits. While acknowledging she’s disabled, the plan says it’s the result of emotional problems unrelated to her years of stunt work.

Hoffman filed suit in 2010 in U.S. District Court after she was denied “occupational disability pension” from the SAG Benefits Plan, but the case was dismissed. She then appealed to the 9th Circuit, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and ordered plan administrators to reconsider her case because they didn’t follow their own rules – or the law. But that was more than a year ago. “It’s a disgrace,” says her attorney, Charles Fleishman. “It’s eat your own children. She worked her whole life, and then nobody wants to be bothered with her. SAG doesn’t want to pay anything and the courts are just disgraceful.”

Hoffman’s limbo is one that should concern every stunt person who later becomes disabled. Like Hoffman, how will they be able to prove, many years later, that their disabilities were caused by work-related injuries? And if they can’t prove it, they too could be denied SAG health benefits; they too could spend years battling the Health Plan in court.

You’ve no doubt seen Hoffman’s work. That was her, as Queen Elizabeth, sliding down a 40-foot banquet table with Leslie Nielson on top of her in Naked Gun (watch the video below.) And that was her perched atop a motorcycle sidecar, narrowly escaping decapitation during a dry run, when it crashed into the back of a truck in the John Belushi movie 1941. Her many other dangerous stunts include falling 78 feet into the polluted waters of LA Harbor after jumping off the Love Boat, and being held by her ankles and dropped on her head nine times before they finally got the right shot for Clue. Over her long career, she’d been in too many car crashes, fallen down too many stairs, and been too close to too many powerful special effects explosions. Watch her work in Naked Gun here:

When she wasn’t getting hurt on the job, she was fighting for the safety of her fellow stunt performers. In 1982, she was named co-chair of the SAG Stunt and Safety Committee; a year later was named chair. She also fought discrimination against stuntwomen, speaking out against stuntmen putting on wigs and dresses in order to double for women, and accusing the powerful stuntmen’s groups of operating as hiring halls and illegally refusing to allow women to become members.

In its appeal, the 9th Circuit said the lower court and the Plan should rethink that idea that Hoffman should be covered.

“Hoffman worked as a stunt actress in motion pictures, but ceased work,” the appellate court ruled on April 28, 2014, “because of a variety of physical injuries. In 2003, Hoffman was admitted for psychiatric treatment on two occasions and ultimately diagnosed with severe major depression. In 2004, the Social Security Administration awarded Hoffman disability benefits due to her depression. As a result, Hoffman became eligible for and eventually obtained a disability pension under the Plan. Five years later, Hoffman submitted an application to convert her disability pension to an ‘occupational disability pension’ in order to receive the additional benefit of health coverage.”

In order to qualify for an occupational disability benefit, however, she had to show she suffered from a total disability that occurred in the course of employment covered by the Plan. To support her claim, Hoffman presented the Plan with a Social Security report that described her back injury as “severe” and “degenerative” – evidence that she says showed that her disability was not only emotional, but physical, as well, and that it had been caused by years of stunt work.

In 2010, the Plan consulted with a doctor, who, without examining her, determined she was disabled under the Plan on the basis of mental illness and not because of a work-related injury. Hoffman appealed to the Plan’s Benefits Committee, which, according to the appellate court, “denied her appeal without consulting with a second medical professional.”

“Notably,” the appeals court ruled, “the district court acknowledged that the Plan erred in failing to obtain a second medical opinion in assessing her administrative appeal in violation of Employee Retirement Income Security Act regulations.”

The 9th Circuit found that she had not been provided a “fair hearing,” and ordered the Plan to allow her to present additional evidence. “We conclude that the district court erred in dismissing Hoffman’s claim on summary judgment because she is entitled to a second medical opinion and a fully developed record resulting therefrom,” the appellate court ruled. “Accordingly, we reverse and remand.”

Hoffman then presented the Plan with the results from two SPECT scan tests that showed that she has a traumatic brain injury, but after two more doctors looked at her file, the Plan continues to deny her benefits.

“The SPECT scan shows traumatic brain damage,” Fleishman said. “She had a history, as a stunt worker, of falling on her head repeatedly. The stunt work ruined her physically. The Plan sent her file out to two doctors for another evaluation, who concluded that there’s no physical cause for her disability. They denied her claim again. In the synopsis of their reports, they don’t even mention the brain scan test, which was positive for brain trauma. And the Plan refused to say who those doctors were or to show us copies of their reports. Neither one of them examined her. We have never seen the doctors or been told who they are. All they gave us was a synopsis of what the two doctors supposedly said. We made repeated requests and they refuse to tell us.”

Calls to Michael Estrada, CEO of the SAG Pension & Health Plans, were not returned.

The courts, her attorney said, are giving Hoffman a similar run-around, with a new judge assigned to the case after the previous one retired. “I asked the new judge to put the case back on the active calendar so we can evaluate the latest decision from SAG. When they rejected her the second time, they were obligated to give her an opportunity to appeal and present more evidence. They refused. When I asked the judge to put in on the active list so that he could review the last decision they made, he refused to do that. So we’re sitting here in limbo.”

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