Railroad Group Secures Appellate Victory in Case Interpreting Release

Apr 20, 2018 | News

The Burns White Transportation and Appellate Practice Groups recently won a significant victory in the Pennsylvania Superior Court in a case for a railroad client involving the interpretation of a release agreement under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”).

Plaintiff brought an action in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County pursuant to the FELA alleging that her husband, a former railroad employee, developed lung cancer as a result of exposure to asbestos. Several years previously, the employee had sued the railroad alleging that he had developed asbestosis as a result of his railroad employment. The first lawsuit was settled, and the employee, represented by counsel, signed a release which provided that the employee was also settling future claims, which included language specifically releasing the railroad from liability for development of cancer arising from his alleged exposures to asbestos.

The railroad, represented by Burns White, filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the release barred the second lawsuit alleging development of lung cancer. The trial court agreed, granted summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit. Plaintiff then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Her primary argument was that the release was invalid due to the application of the FELA, which, according to the Plaintiff, restricted the ability of railroads to release claims for future injuries that had not yet manifested themselves at the time the release was executed. Following extensive briefing, the Superior Court affirmed the decision in an unpublished non-precedential opinion on March 23, 2018.

Due to a lack precedential appellate rulings from the Pennsylvania courts on the important question concerning the scope of releases in FELA lawsuits, Burns White, led by Transportation Group Chair David Damico and Appellate Practice Chair Ira Podheiser, filed a motion with the Superior Court to have the opinion published. On April 13, 2018, the Superior Court took the rare step of granting the motion to publish. As a result, this important ruling can be cited by the Pennsylvania courts, and by counsel, as binding precedent.