Proving Railroad Mesothelioma Claims | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Breathing in asbestos fibers clearly leads to the development of the deadly cancer called mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure does not cause fatalities for everyone every time, but health experts determined long ago that there is no safe level of airborne asbestos.

That science, along with a range of federal regulations and industry best practices, places legal duties on employers to limit workers’ exposure to asbestos to as close to zero as possible. Few companies met that obligation until quite recently. Asbestos was especially common on trains and in rail yards well into the 2000s. The material was used as insulation and heat shielding on brakes, in diesel locomotives and cabooses, around diesel engines and generators, around heating lines and inside building such as shops, roundhouses and offices.




Asbestos was also found in automobile parts and insulation for homes and schools during much of the past century. Those facts give a railroad corporation an easy, though often false, defense against allegations that on-the-job exposures caused a former rail employee’s mesothelioma. Lifelong cigarette smoking also complicates many railroad workers’ mesothelioma cases.

All of this makes hiring a local personal injury and wrongful death attorney who has a strong track record of representing railroaders essential. Taking quick action is also essential because the time between a definitive diagnosis of mesothelioma and death from the disease can be brutally short. The law under which railroad mesothelioma lawsuits are brought, the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), has a three-year statute of limitations. Few mesothelioma victims live that long.

Countering Railroad Company Defenses Against Mesothelioma Claims

Mesothelioma symptoms often do not manifest until 20-30 years after the ultimately fatal exposure to asbestos occurred. So, usually, the first thing a FELA attorney must do for a retired railroad employee is obtain employment records and recreate the working conditions from testimony, other records kept by the company and contemporaneous job descriptions. Analyses and reports from industrial hygienists also play an important role in establishing how a company failed to make and enforce safety rules that would have limited asbestos exposures.

Specific arguments that our railroad occupational illness attorneys have had to dismiss include the following:

  • Railroads did not know that the employee was at risk. Reports establishing the link between on-the-job exposures to asbestos and occupational illnesses among workers emerged in 1930s.


  • The railroad employee never saw any asbestos fibers: The fibers are microscopic. That makes them easy to inhale, and they never leave the lungs. While it is true that walking through a cloud of asbestos would damage one’s lungs, so will breathing in unseen fibers for hours on end day after day.


  • The railroad employee did not handle asbestos. As noted, asbestos was used as an insulator in many railroad buildings. Wrapped around pipes, stuffed into walls, and layered between carpets and floor tiles, the material easily became airborne when renovations were done and as the insulation dried out and flaked off over time.


  • The employee failed to comply with safety rules. Few rules regarding wearing masks or respirators and suppressing dust existed until the 1970s and 1980s. The rules were then poorly enforced, and some railroad employees were never given proper training, adequate warnings or sufficient equipment to protect themselves.


  • Many toxic materials and carcinogens exist everywhere. The signs of asbestos damage are unique. Even though many mesothelioma victims also suffer from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, doctors can isolate mesothelioma and find asbestos fibers in biopsies from living patients and autopsies on deceased individuals.


  • Mesothelioma was not the single cause of death. FELA cases can be decided on the basis of comparative negligence. For instance, a federal jury awarded one of our railroad mesothelioma clients $5 million dollars but then determined that on-the-job asbestos exposure only accounted for 20 percent of his life-threatening health problems. Consequently, the railroad that had employed him to service and change asbestos brake shoes was ordered to pay a FELA award of $1 million.