Asphyxiation from toxic fumes claimed the life of a rail car maintenance worker in Weld County, Colorado (CO), on the morning of December 5, 2017. The hazmat incident also sent a second person to the Northern Colorado Medical Center in nearby Fort Collins.
The fatal on-the-job accident happened at a private rail yard off 47th Avenue in the town of Evans. The worker who died has been publicly identified as 35-year-old Jose Miguel Cisneros of Greely. His co-worker’s condition at the hospital was not disclosed, but news reports indicate that both men were found unconscious at around 8:30 am.
It is unclear what chemical fumes overwhelmed the maintenance workers, and no details were released regarding whether a railroad company owned or was currently using the tanker car in which the workers were overcome by toxic fumes.
What is undeniable, however, is that the company that owned the chemical tanker car and the business that employed the maintenance workers had legal duties to provide appropriate ventilation and sufficient safety equipment. If the men were sent into an unsafe car, not given working respirators or air filtration devices, and not fully trained, properly instructed and sufficiently supervised, one or more corporation would have responsibility for paying for medical expenses, wrongful death compensation and other forms of damages.
Should claims against a railroad company exist, the family of the deceased worker could bring a lawsuit under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act, or FELA. The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen offers a valuable factsheet on FELA, emphasizing that plaintiffs must prove that managers and supervisors for a railroad acted negligently. The union then notes that corporate negligence happens when the railroad does not fulfill its “duty to furnish the employee a reasonably safe place to work.”
It further notes that the plaintiff in a FELA lawsuit must convince a judge or jury that
- The railroad has been guilty of a lack of due care under the circumstance, or
- Has failed to do what a reasonable and prudent person would ordinarily have done under the circumstances, or
- Has done what a person under the existing circumstance would not have done.
As FELA attorneys based in Virginia, my personal injury and wrongful death law firm colleagues and I have helped hundreds of railroad employees and contractors hold corporations accountable for negligently failing to protect workers. We have long been particularly interested in reducing health risks from workplace exposures to toxic fumes. Some chemicals can kill within seconds, while others greatly increase workers’ risks for developing cancer and debilitating lung disease. All companies that deal with hazardous materials must do everything possible to minimize dangers to employees.