By a MetNews Staff Writer
A railroad worker who agreed to release all future claims against his employer as part of a settlement was not barred from bringing another claim eight years later for an injury unrelated to the incident that led to the previous settlement, Div. Two of this district’s Court of Appeal has held, interpreting a provision of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.
A portion of that act provides, at 45 U.S.C. §55:
“Any contract, rule, regulation, or device whatsoever, the purpose or intent of which shall be to enable any common carrier to exempt itself from any liability created by this chapter, shall to that extent be void….”
Presiding Justice Elwood Lui said, in an opinion filed Monday:
“The United States Supreme Court long ago concluded that this provision does not apply to a release provided in settlement of a specific liability claim….However, federal law, which governs here, is unsettled as to whether such a release may properly extend to known risks that have not yet caused any injury.
“No California case has yet considered this issue.”
Sixth Circuit Opinion
Lui turned to the 1997 Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Babbitt v. Norfolk Western Railway Company which distinguishes valid releases, which are negotiated based on a known claim for specific injury, from those that attempt to “extinguish potential future claims” that employees might bring for “known or unknown” injuries. It limits the scope of a release to “those risks which are known to the parties at the time the release is signed,” he noted.
While noting a division among the federal circuits on the issue, the jurist declared:
“We conclude that the ‘bright line’ rule explained in Babbitt is more consistent with section 55 and with the United States Supreme Court decisions interpreting it, at least as applied to the purported release of unrelated future claims.”
Judgment for Railroad
The opinion reverses a judgment by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Fahey, who granted a motion for judgment on the pleadings by Union Pacific Railroad in an action brought under the FELA by former employee Bernie Chacon.
Fahey based his decision on a release signed by Chacon in 2010 as part of a settlement under which the railroad paid him nearly $204,000 in connection with a 2007 incident. Chacon agreed to retire and release Union Pacific from liability for all claims arising out his employment, including claims concerning exposure to toxic chemicals or fumes.
“The Release that Chacon provided in settling his prior lawsuit in 2010 validly applied to all claims arising from the 2007 accident at issue in that litigation,” Lui said in his opinion joined by Justices Victoria M. Chavez and Brian M. Hoffstadt.
But, Lui added, the release did not apply to unrelated future claims, concluding:
“Thus, the Release does not bar Chacon’s claims in this litigation.”
The case is Chacon v. Union Pacific Railroad, 2020 S.O.S. 5097.
Counsel for Union Pacific were Viiu Spangler Khare, Steven M. Crane, Barbara S. Hodous, and Rebecca A. Bellow of Berkes Crane Robinson & Seal in Los Angeles. D. Shawn Burkley and James West of the Sherman Oaks form of Marc J. Bern & Partners, LLP acted for Chacon.
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