Railway Company Denied Summary Judgment; Service and Expert Issues Remain

The plaintiff, the Estate of Gregorio Sanchez Valdez, alleged occupational exposure to asbestos and diesel fumes while working as a machinist for defendant BNSF Railway Company from 1996 until 2016. Valdez was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 2014. BNSF moved for summary judgment on three grounds, of which the court denied all three.

First, BNSF argued that Valdez failed to serve BNSF with process within the three-year statute of limitations under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. The court observed that the crux of this argument turns on determination of the date that Valdez’s claim accrued. The court noted that the discovery rule applies in cases where plaintiffs allege exposure to toxic substances years before symptoms arise. “Under the discovery rule, the statute of limitations ‘begins to run when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the existence and cause of the injury which is the basis of his action,’” which is a fact intensive inquiry. (quoting Indus. Constructors Corp. v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, 15 F.3d 963, 969 (10th Cir. 1994)). Since the date of accrual of the plaintiff’s claim is a currently disputed question of fact, the court determined that the question will be submitted to the jury if BNSF wishes to present the factual dispute at trial.     

The defendant also argued that both the plaintiff’s liability and medical expert witnesses’ opinions should be excluded as they fail to meet Delaware Rule of Evidence 702 and the Daubert Standard. Both Delaware Rule of Evidence 702 and the Daubert Standard set forth that the trial court must determine the relevance and reliability of the proposed evidence. Further, the trial judge must also consider a “five-step test,” including whether:

(1) the witness is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education; (2) the evidence is relevant; (3) the expert’s opinion is based upon information reasonably relied upon by experts in that particular field; (4) the expert testimony will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a material fact in issue; and (5) the expert testimony will not create unfair prejudice or confuse or mislead the jury.

BNSF argued that it is entitled to summary judgment since the plaintiff failed to produce liability and medical experts competent to testify at trial. The court rejected BASF’s contention that the plaintiff’s liability expert’s opinion is inherently unreliable. Specifically, the plaintiff liability expert “is an expert qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education,” whose testimony is “relevant and will assist the jury in understanding the evidence and determining a fact in issue.” In addition, his opinions “are based on information reasonably relied on by experts in the field.” BASF also moved in limine to preclude the plaintiff’s expert from opinion that BNSF failed to comply with the General Duty Clause in OSHA. The court disagreed and held that the safety standards set forth in the OSHA General Duty Clause are relevant and have probative value. The court also found the plaintiff’s medical expert is qualified under the Daubert Standard.

In addition, BNSF moved in limine to preclude documents from the American Association of Railroads as inadmissible hearsay. The court set forth that a more well-developed record and proper foundation must be laid to determine the admissibility of the documents under well-settled evidentiary considerations in Delaware.