Dismissal of Railroad Wrongful Death Suit Overturned

By Greg Kohn

Lawsuits revolving around exposure to toxic substances have become quite common, as the consequences of being exposed to certain chemicals have become well known.  Like in many of the asbestos cases, individuals are often exposed to toxic substances while at work.  In a recent case, Mary Tanfield brought a wrongful death suit on behalf of her husband, Harold Tanfield.

The basis of Tanfield’s claim is that Harold was exposed to poisonous diesel fumes while working as a conductor for Consolidated Rail Corp., and its predecessors, for 35 years.  Harold started working for the company in 1952 and died in 2008 after being diagnosed with lung cancer.  Tanfield alleges that Harold’s continued exposure to diesel fumes while on the job caused his lung cancer and his death.  She filed the lawsuit under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA).

A number of witnesses testified before the trial court.  One witness, a co-worker of Harold’s, stated that the large amount of exhaust produced by the trains in the past caused the fumes to leak into the cabins.  The conductors would therefore breath in these fumes on a regular basis.  He also testified that the company did nothing to prevent the employees from breathing in these toxic fumes.  The attorneys for the defendant argued that the company did not owe Harold a duty, in other words, they were not required to prevent him from breathing in the toxic substance and that they therefore did not breach any duty to him (an essential element of a wrongful death suit).

An expert witness, a pathologist from Harvard Medical School, testified that Harold’s lung cancer was likely the result of his repeated exposure to toxic diesel fumes while on the job.  The trial court judge granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, despite the expert witness’s report, on the basis that he was not an expert in railroad safety.  The case was dismissed.  Tanfield appealed the decision and the Appellate Division decided that an expert in railroad safety was not required because of the lower standard that had to be met in the FELA case.  In a FELA case the plaintiff only needs to show that the employer caused the employees injury in some way.  The court overturned the dismissal and the plaintiff’s attorney hopes to start settlement negotiations soon.

The attorneys at Nagel Rice are experienced in bringing personal injury actions for wrongful death.  If you believe that someone you love was the victim of wrongful death call us at (973)618-0400.

About the Author
Greg Kohn is a partner at Nagel Rice and specializes in complex civil litigation cases, including professional malpractice, personal injury, class actions, wrongful death, products liability, and commercial litigation.  He has extensive experience representing clients in both state and federal court. Greg has tried many jury trials to verdict and has recovered over $50 million in settlements and verdicts in all types of personal injury matters including automobile accidents, wrongful death cases, slip and falls, and other catastrophic injury cases. Greg also handles medical malpractice cases, involving misdiagnoses, wrongful birth, and delayed cancer diagnosis. If you have questions regarding this article, you can contact Greg here.