Decedent Gene Sponcler worked for over 40 years for defendant BNSF Railway Company and its predecessor in interest as a laborer, brakeman, and conductor. The decedent was diagnosed with kidney cancer in late 2010 (the exact date is disputed by the parties) and passed away on January 25, 2016. The decedent’s wife filed this action on January 24, 2019, one day short of three years after the decedent’s passing.
BNSF seeks summary judgment and contends that the plaintiff’s claims brought under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) accrued in 2010 and therefore are barred by the applicable three-year statute of limitations. In response, the plaintiff argues that summary judgment is not appropriate because the defendant has not established that the decedent knew or should have known that his workplace exposure to hazardous materials could be a cause of his cancer more than three years prior to the filing of this action or his death.
The court determined that the key question to be resolved is whether BNSF has shown that the decedent knew, or should have known, that his workplace exposure to hazardous materials could be a cause of his kidney cancer. The defendant argued that by the time of the decedent’s cancer diagnosis in 2010, the decedent was on notice of both his injury and its potential work-related cause, and so the statute of limitations began to run in late 2010 and expired in late 2013, more than two years prior to his death and more than five years before this case was filed.
FELA imposes liability on railroad companies for “damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed . . . resulting in whole or in part from the negligence” of the railway. See 45 U.S.C. § 51. Two causes of action exist under FELA when an injury allegedly contributed to an employee’s death; a survival action and a wrongful death action. See 45 U.S.C. § 51, 59. The statute of limitations for FELA claims is “three years from the day the cause of action accrued.” See 45 U.S.C. § 56. A defendant can obtain summary judgment only if the statute of limitations has run and there is no genuine issue of material fact as to when the plaintiff’s cause of action accrued. Fries v. Chicago & Nw. Transp. Co., 909 F.2d 1092, 1094 (7th Cir. 1990).
FELA does not define when a cause of action accrues. In cases such as this, where an injury is the result of ongoing exposure rather than a specific, identifiable incident, the Supreme Court has applied the “discovery rule” to determine when a cause of action accrues. Under this rule, a cause of action accrues when “a reasonable person knows or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known both the injury and its governing cause. Citing Fries, 909 F.2d at 1094. The court also cited Fries for the holding that an injured plaintiff need not be certain which cause is the governing cause, but only need know or have reason to know of a potential cause, while acknowledging that this rule imposes on plaintiffs an affirmative duty to investigate the potential cause of their injury.
The ultimate question to be decided in this matter was whether the decedent knew or should have known that his workplace exposure to hazardous substances could be a cause of his cancer more than three years prior to the filing of this lawsuit. BNSF argued that the record, specifically treatment notes contained in the medical records, established that the decedent discussed his occupational exposure to asbestos with his physicians and therefore was on constructive notice that this exposure was a potential cause of his exposure. The plaintiff responded that whether the decedent was on such notice is a question of fact to be left to the jury, as the medical records do not establish whether any medical provided informed the decedent that his workplace exposures were a potential cause of his cancer.
While actual knowledge is not required, the court ultimately could not conclude, as a matter of law, that the decedent knew or should have known that his asbestos exposure was a potential cause of his kidney cancer. The record before the court does not demonstrate that a reasonable person would have connected the cancer to the workplace exposures. Therefore, the magistrate judge strongly recommended that defendant’s motion for summary judgment be denied without prejudice to allow additional discovery.