In May 2014, a Tennessee appeals court found for the plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit being pursued by the widow of a lifelong railroad worker who died from mesothelioma. State and federal courts side with people who sue companies all the time, as our Virginia-based personal injury and wrongful death law firm’s long track record of successful litigation proves.
Still, this particular decision in this particular case stands out for affirming the right to hold negligent railroad corporations accountable for failing to protect workers from developing deadly occupational illnesses.
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The lawsuit was filed under provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act, or FELA. Since 1908, the FELA has served as a kind of workers’ compensation system for engineers, conductors, brakemen, signalmen, trackmen, machinists and all other railroad employees. Individuals who suffer injuries while working on or around trains, as well as railroad workers who develop job-related cancers or other chronic health problems, can file FELA claims to have their medical bills paid, their lost wages replaced and their pain and suffering compensated.
A FELA claim differs significantly from a workers’ comp claim in that the injured or ill railroad employee must show that their employer acted negligently. And that is what gave rise to this important lawsuit in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals took up Delores Blackmon, et al. v. Illinois Central Railroad Company et al. because the original trial court had ruled that the plaintiff had no legal basis for filing her lawsuit. At issue was whether a release the deceased railroad worker had signed while still employed by the defendant company barred this later wrongful death claim.
The release was broadly worded to “fully, completely and forever release, discharge and acquit … from any and all claims, losses, damages and injuries directly or indirectly caused by or resulting from any alleged exposure to asbestos, coal, coal dust, welding fumes, brass fumes, diesel fumes, dust, paint vapors, fuel fumes, methyl bromide, ammonia gas, sand, silica, and any and all other fumes, dusts, mists, gases, and vapors.”
The trial court decided that the worker did, in fact, surrender his right to pursue FELA claims for an occupational illness. The appeals court disagreed and allowed the man’s widow to continue seeking compensation. Specifically, the appeals court noted that no evidence existed to show that the worker fully “understood that he was at risk of developing mesothelioma, or, in other words, that it was a risk known to him, at the time the release was signed.”
In other other words, the appellate court determined that a railroad corporation cannot hold its employees to the terms of an unfair liability waiver, especially when the company does not thoroughly explain to employees precisely what the waiving their rights entails. Securing a release does not give a rail corporation license to ignore safety measures and endanger workers.
Not the End of the Story
The Blackmon case originated in 2009. The appeals court reinstated the lawsuit in 2014. The next step would be a civil trial in state circuit court. If Illinois Central refused to settle and Blackmon won a jury award, the company would almost surely appeal again.
Our Virginia-based FELA law firm handled a case that followed this exact path. We needed to go all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court to have our client’s wrongful death award upheld.
Succeeding with FELA claims is possible, but not always easy. Rail corporations will deploy every legal tactic and strategy, including simply stalling and hoping the plaintiff becomes frustrated enough to either drop their claim or accept an unjust settlement. Appellate court judges increasingly show little patience with such games, which is a positive development for FELA plaintiffs.