Legal Update – October 30, 2020

Settlement agreement language in FELA cases can be tricky. It’s common for a railroad worker to suffer a specific on-duty injury and settle his/her FELA case. Then, years later the worker finds out s/he has an unrelated occupational illness because of exposure to harmful chemicals like asbestos, silica, and diesel fumes. In any FELA settlement, the railroad usually insists that the agreement also include language that the worker is also releasing any future occupational illness, whether known or unknown. What then when the railroad uses the first settlement agreement to block a completely unrelated occupational FELA claim decades later that the worker could not have known about?
This week, the Court of Appeal of California in the case of Chacon v. Union Pacific Railroad Company helped give railroad workers a clear answer. After an excellent review of the federal case law on the issue, the Court focused on the plain language of FELA under section 55. In that section, Congress stated that any contract, rule, regulation or device the purpose of which would exempt the railroad from liability under FELA would be void. While a settlement of a specific injury under FELA is allowed, the Chacon Court held that section 55 precludes the release of future unrelated claims even if specific language releasing future claims was included in the first settlement. This case provides another real world 2020 example showing the significant legal protections Congress afforded railroad workers over 100 years ago.
– Joe Miller
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