Railroad Conductor Who Developed Asthma and COPD From Exposure to Diesel Fumes Receives Confidential Settlement | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

What Happened

Our Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) case client had worked as a railroad conductor for more than 30 years when he developed debilitating asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). His doctors told him that decades spent in the cabs of diesel-powered locomotives and breathing in diesel fumes damaged his lungs. Following this diagnosis, the man filed an occupational illness claim against his employer.

Well into the 1990s, many of the smaller locomotives used in rail yards to move rail cars used engines manufactured by Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD). The locomotives were not air-conditioned, and the cabs became extremely hot even during winter months. This led engineers and conductors to adopted the employer-sanctioned standard operating procedure of opening cab windows and doors while crewing the EMD locomotives.

Because of the way the engine exhaust stacks were positioned on the EMD locomotives, opening windows and doors allowed smoke and particulates from burning diesel to fill the crew compartments. We provided all these details in our filings on behalf of the railroad conductor who was suffering from multiple types of lung disease, but his employer refused to settle his occupational disease claim because they learned that he had smoked for much of his adult life.

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Key Legal Strategy

Given the stated reason for the railroad corporation’s refusal to compensate our FELA client, it fell to our Virginia-based occupational illness attorney to produce solid evidence that the asthma and COPD developed primarily due to repeated exposures to diesel fumes rather than regular tobacco use.

Our attorney did this by consulting with several lung disease and workplace air quality experts across the United States. Our FELA lawyer also put together a small library of scientific and medical studies that established links between prolonged exposure to diesel fumes and asthma, COPD, reactive airway disease and various forms of lung cancer.

One especially strong piece of evidence for the railroad conductor was a peer-reviewed study reported in 2009 that controlled for smoking as a lung disease risk factor among people who often breathed in diesel exhaust at work. That is, researchers determined how much more likely people were to develop lung disease if they smoked and worked around poorly ventilated diesel engines, as well as if they did not smoke but did suffer prolonged exposure to diesel fumes.

The researchers looked at the health records of rail employees, in particular, and they found that on-the-job diesel fume exposure was an independent and strong risk factor for COPD.

After seeing and hearing all the evidence gathered and organized by our FELA attorney, the railroad corporation agreed to settle the conductor’s occupational disease claim for a confidential sum. The settlement was concluded just a couple of weeks before a jury trial was scheduled to begin.

As this case illustrates, the worst health effects of working for a railroad may not become evident for 20, 30 or 40 years. Fortunately, FELA allows victims of work-related lung diseases and cancers, including mesothelioma, to hold the corporations that failed to adequately protect them accountable.

Staff: Richard N. Shapiro, attorney; Randall E. Appleton, attorney