Impact of Supreme Court Ruling on Railroad Workers Exposed to Asbestos

Working our nation's rails is not an easy job. The men and women that choose careers in this field are often faced with physical and mental rigors throughout the day. From shifting heavy cars to different lines to ensuring that tracks are in proper working order, those who choose this profession put in long and sometimes grueling days.

Although the hours may be long and the work can be difficult, like many other employees these professionals expect that their employers provide a safe working environment. But what happens when the employer fails to do this?

Unfortunately, many railroad workers find themselves asking this very question given that some railway companies have tragically utilized various products containing the hazardous substance asbestos - products that have made the workers susceptible to asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was heavily used on the rails given its durability. The fine fibers were known for their strength and ability to handle extreme heat, two things desperately needed within the railway industry.

The same qualities that make asbestos promising in the field make it deadly to those who come into contact with it. The two qualities that result in the most danger are its size and durability. Each individual fiber is extremely small and can easily be inhaled. The material is also very durable. These two qualities can result in asbestos fibers becoming embedded within an individual's lungs for decades. The constant irritation can lead to the development of a wide array of diseases including many forms of fatal lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Unfortunately, some railway workers attempting to hold large railroad companies accountable for exposing workers to this dangerous material are facing roadblocks. One such roadblock was highlighted recently in a Supreme Court decision.

Supreme Court Asbestos Case

The recent Supreme Court case was filed by a welder who worked with a national railroad company for almost thirty years. During his time as an employee, the plaintiff was exposed to brake and insulation material containing asbestos. After his retirement, the employee was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

The case raised state law claims that the defendants "failed to warn of the dangers of asbestos or to provide instructions regarding its safe use." Ultimately, because of the use of state law claims the court decided in favor of the defendants. The court unfortunately held that these claims were pre-empted by the Locomotive Inspection Act, or LIA.

LIA is a law designed to ensure a railroad carrier uses safe equipment that does not result in unnecessary danger of personal injury to railway workers. It outlines inspection requirements and regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Transportation.

This case focused on a specific portion of the LIA which states that a railroad carrier can use a locomotive on its line only when the locomotive and its parts:

  • Are in proper working condition and safe to operate without causing danger of personal harm
  • Were inspected following the Secretary of Transportation's regulations
  • Pass every test required by the Secretary of Transportation

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the state law based claims fell within an area of protections specifically covered by the LIA, thus were preempted. However, given that the ultimate purpose of LIA is to protect railroad workers, it is almost ironic that it failed to protect a worker's injury claim in this instance.

How Holding Impacts Future Asbestos Claims for Railroad Workers

Ultimately, the case provides support for the fact that asbestos exposure claims for railway workers are often governed by LIA. Claims can still be successfully filed under the protections of the Federal Employees Liability Act, or FELA. This applies when railroad companies are found negligent in their duty to protect railway workers.

If you or a loved one is exposed to asbestos while working, compensation may be available to cover medical and rehabilitative expenses as well as pain and suffering. Claims can include that the employer failed to provide a reasonably safe work environment, failed to inspect the work environment to ensure it was free from hazards or that the employer did not enforce safety rules and regulations.

Although the Supreme Court's holding can make some claims more difficult, it is important to keep in mind that compensation is often still available for victims of asbestos exposure. Every situation is unique and discussing your case with an experienced railroad workers attorney will better ensure your legal rights and remedies are protected.