BLE gets landmark FELA win at Supreme Court

In major asbestos ruling, BLE stops carrier attempts to undercut worker protection laws

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers played a key role in protecting the Federal Employers Liability Act -- and the rights of all railroad workers -- in a landmark Supreme Court decision issued on March 10.

Most media attention focused on the Supreme Court's ruling that some railroad workers who were exposed to cancer-causing asbestos can win money damages in court even though they do not yet have cancer and may never get it.

The BLE, however, focused its legal eyes on other portions of the railroad's lawsuit, which attempted to undermine and critically weaken FELA.

While the Respondent and other amici briefs focused largely upon issues regarding asbestosis and fear of cancer, the briefing offered by the BLE was unique in emphasizing that the position advocated by the railroad industry would critically undermine, and at times entirely negate and destroy, important rights and protections afforded to injured railroad workers by Congress under FELA.

The BLE's briefing made clear that the railroad industry was attempting to weaken FELA in fundamental respects, seeking to accomplish through a judicial decision that which it had been unable to accomplish legislatively over the decades.

The Court was clearly aware that the railroad industry was seeking to undermine and weaken FELA, and refused to let it do so.

Although the decision was divided regarding asbestosis, the justices were unanimous in rejecting the railroad's attempt to eliminate portions of FELA. The justices held that if a railroad's negligence plays any part in a worker's receipt of injury, the worker may recover all damages sustained from the railroad, and need not seek compensation from potentially liable third parties. The court held that the burden should remain upon the railroad to seek reimbursement from any potentially negligent third party, and refused to shift this burden to the worker.

In reaching its decision, the Court made clear that it gave credence to the BLE's argument and declined to weaken or recast FELA in the manner urged by the railroad industry.

"This decision constitutes a landmark victory for injured railroad workers under FELA, largely because of the BLE's willingness to address issues others had ignored," said BLE International President Don Hahs. "We made an important stand on behalf of injured railroad workers and our Amicus Brief played an important role in the Supreme Court's decision."

The ruling was a blow to Norfolk Southern and to big business generally. The railroad and its backers had hoped the conservative-leaning high court would use the case to curb the burgeoning asbestos-related lawsuits in state and federal courts.

Big companies are asking Congress for protection from an estimated $200 billion in asbestos liability. There are more than 600,000 asbestos-related lawsuits before courts today and it is expected that many more will be filed.

The BLE's position was presented by Bill Jungbauer of Yaeger, Jungbauer, Barczak & Vucinovich.

The BLE filed an Amicus Brief in the case, Norfolk & Western Railway versus Ayers, 01-963.


© 2003 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers