Railroad Engineer Receives Confidential Lung Damage Settlement After Exploding Battery Exposes Him to Toxic Fumes | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

What Happened

Our Virginia-based railroad injury case client was working as a train engineer when he breathed in sulfuric acid fumes and other harmful airborne chemicals from a locomotive battery that exploded without warning. His exposure to the toxic fumes lasted hours because he had no knowledge of how dangerous the smoke from the exploded battery could be.

According to the engineer and his co-workers, the explosion occurred as he exited the crew cab on a diesel-powered locomotive. Our client was standing directly over the battery compartment when he was engulfed in thick smoke. He escaped without incurring immediately noticeable physical injuries, assisted with the emergency response, filed an onsite incident report and completed his shift while working near the locomotive that continued spewing small amounts of smoke and other fumes.

About a month after the battery explosion, our railroad injury client began experiencing bronchitis-like symptoms. He initially treated his persistent cough, chest tightness and hoarseness with OTC medications, but the engineer eventually visited his family physician. The doctor asked him if he had recently been exposed to smoke, toxic fumes and chemicals. Upon hearing about the locomotive battery explosion, the doctor referred the engineer to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

The ENT performed a bronchoscopy — inserting a flexible tube tipped with a camera through a nostril and into the lungs — and discovered extensive irritation along the engineer’s throat, windpipe and lung tissue. The specialist concluded that it was more likely than not that the irritation followed prolonged exposure to airborne chemicals.

When the engineer’s coughing and breathing problems did not resolve, he took nine months of unpaid medical leave. He then filed claims for the payment of medical expenses and wage replacement, but his railroad employer denied those requests. The company’s initial argument was that our client could not have suffered disabling injuries when the battery exploded because he kept showing up for work for two months after that incident.

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Key Legal Strategy

The engineer continued experiencing shortness of breath after returning from medical leave, and the problem become worse when he inhaled diesel fumes. He hired our Virginia-based railroad injury firm when the company turned down his work-related injury and temporary disability claims.

We saw our primary job to be proving that only breathing in the toxic fumes from the exploded battery explained the onset of his long-lasting bronchitis-type symptoms. Reports from the ENT, family physician and a pulmonologist that we hired supported this conclusion.

Testimony from railroad car repair personnel who removed and replaced the exploded battery confirmed that the device contained hundreds of pounds of sulfuric acid solution and other toxic chemicals. The explosion also ignited some diesel fuel, adding to the hazardous mix of chemicals in the smoke. Consulting material safety data sheets for battery acid and diesel fuel provided evidence that breathing in the substances can cause permanent lung damage.

Against all this evidence that supported the conclusion that our railroad injury client suffered serious, debilitating lung damage as a direct result of an on-the-job accident, the rail corporation maintained that the engineer developed bronchitis or breathing problems while engaging in a personal hobby or home-based business activities. The company went so far as to hire a private investigator to conduct surveillance on our client in an attempt to show that he was exposed to harmful chemicals in places other than in locomotives and rail yards.

The private investigator came up empty, and a deposition from the chief medical officer for the railroad corporation showed that the engineer’s personnel file contained no reports of lung problems until after the battery exploded.

With each of its reasons for refusing to compensate our railroad injury client defeated, the company agreed to settle all claims before the case went to trial. The engineer considered the amount offered to be fair, even if it was unnecessarily delated.

Our Virginia railroad injury law firm brought this case under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act, which some people call workers’ compensation for rail employees. That description is not really accurate because proving negligence is required to make a railroad corporation pay out on a FELA claim. Workers’ comp is no-fault, meaning, among other things, that injured rail employees have a much higher likelihood of finding themselves in drawn out legal fights.

Staff: Richard N. Shapiro, attorney