February 10, 2017 — A Texas-based railroad company’s dispute with the family of a railroad worker who died of cancer is being taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawsuit at the heart of the matter is BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrell. It involves the family of a railroad worker named Brent Tyrell who died of kidney cancer after being exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals on the job.
The court will also consider a lawsuit involving Robert Nelson, a former fuel truck driver for BNSF who suffered a knee injury.
Both lawsuits were filed in Montana, although neither man was injured in Montana or ever worked for BNSF in the state.
BNSF lists Texas as its “primary place of business,” but it is incorporated in Delaware, and it and operates freight-trains on 32,500 miles of track in 28 states in the Western U.S. and Canada, including 2,000 miles of track in Montana.
BNSF is facing 33 personal injury lawsuits in Montana — mostly involving workers who are not from Montana who were diagnosed with cancer or suffered other injuries on the job.
BNSF argues that Montana does not have jurisdiction, and therefore all of the lawsuits should be dismissed, citing a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman.
In that case, Argentinians who survived a massacre of labor activists attempted to sue Mercedes-Benz in California — foreigners suing foreign companies on U.S. soil over events entirely outside the U.S.
The U.S. Supreme Court said California did not have jurisdiction because the defendant was not “at home” in California. Likewise, BNSF argues that it is “at home” in Delaware and Texas, so the state of Montana does not have jurisdiction.
If the Supreme Court agrees, the decision will have a big impact on railroad injury lawsuits. It would also limit “forum shopping,” in which lawyers file lawsuits in states where they think they have the highest chance of a big jury award.
Currently, railroad workers are given explicit permission to file lawsuits in any state where the defendant was doing business at the time, under Section 56 of the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA).
FELA was created in 1908 after a huge number of railroad workers were injured or died while helping the industry expand 6-fold over the previous 20 years. Congress recognized that the job was inherently dangerous and wanted to compensate workers for their injuries.
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