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Railroad Cancer Lawsuit Heads to U.S. Supreme Court

February 10, 2017 — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to tackle a jurisdictional dispute in lawsuits involving railroad workers with cancer and other injuries.

BNSF Railway Company is currently facing 33 lawsuits in Montana, mostly involving workers who were injured in other states.

The lawsuit at the heart of the dispute was filed by the family of Brent Tyrell, a man who died of kidney cancer after years of exposure to carcinogenic chemicals.

The court will also consider a lawsuit that was filed in Montana by Robert Nelson, a man who suffered knee injuries while working as a fuel truck driver for BNSF.

Neither man was injured in Montana or ever worked for BNSF in Montana, which is why the railroad says the state lacks jurisdiction. However, the Montana Supreme Court decided last year that they have jurisdiction because BNSF does business in the state, and also “maintains substantial, continuous, and systematic” contact.

BNSF is a railroad company incorporated in Delaware, but Texas is its primary place of business. The company operates over 32,500 miles of track in 28 states, mostly west of the Mississippi River, and Canada. Around 2,000 miles of BNSF track are located in Montana. BNSF also employs thousands of the state’s residents.

BNSF says the lawsuits should be dismissed because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2014 — Daimler AG v. Bauman — which said states do not have personal jurisdiction over lawsuits involving defendants who are not “at home” in the state.

That case involved survivors of a bloody labor dispute in Argentina, who sued Mercedes-Benz in California — foreigners suing a foreign company on U.S. soil over actions that occurred outside the U.S.

In comparison, railroad injury lawsuits involve U.S. citizens suing U.S. companies for injuries that occurred in states where those companies are not “at home” — namely, states outside of Delaware or Texas — under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA).

FELA explicitly gives railroad workers the right to sue for their injuries in any district where the defendant was doing business at the time, under Section 56. Railroads dislike this because it allows “forum shopping,” in which lawyers file lawsuits where they think they have the best chance of winning.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take on the case to resolve the dispute on January 17, 2017. The case is BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrell.

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