Summary Judgment Denied to Railroad Defendant on Issue of Foreseeability

U.S. District Court for the District of Maine, January 25, 2021

The plaintiff, Victor Coffin, alleged he was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of his exposures to asbestos while working for Maine Central Railroad (MCRR). Specifically, Mr. Coffin alleged that he worked as a bridge operator at the Carlton Bridge, which was built under the supervision of the Maine Department of Transportation and completed in 1929. During the time period that Mr. Coffin worked on the bridge, however, his employer, MCRR, was 100 percent responsible for the maintenance of the bridge’s railroad track structure, lift span machinery, signaling, and bridge operations. Mr. Coffin alleged that he was exposed to asbestos from the walls of the control room, engine room, machine shop, and operating room of the bridge. He testified that the bridge would shake when trains and heavy trucks passed over it, and during a couple of hurricanes, causing the wall panels to shake together, creating dust. It was undisputed that asbestos-containing products were used during the initial construction of the bridge. However, MCRR argued that it was never aware of the existence of asbestos at the bridge during the period that it operated and maintained the bridge, and only made this discovery through an inspection by independent contractors in 2000.

MCRR moved for summary judgment, arguing that Mr. Coffin could not prove that it was foreseeable to MCRR that he would be exposed to asbestos during his employment at the bridge, and even if it could have known that the bridge walls contained asbestos, under the industrial standards at the time, MCRR had no reason to believe that there would be harmful exposure to Mr. Coffin. Essentially, MCRR argued that Mr. Coffin was unable to establish the foreseeability element of his FELA claim, emphasizing that “reasonable foreseeability of harm…is indeed an essential ingredient of FELA negligence.”

Considering the proofs offered by MCRR, the court found that the question of foreseeability should be left to the jury, as there was some reasonable basis to conclude that MCRR should have known about the presence of asbestos at the bridge. For instance, MCRR used asbestos products throughout its own system, and began a program of asbestos removal in the last few years of Mr. Coffin’s employment. While MCRR attempted to rely on an inspection conducted in 1984 to determine what safety and health problems existed at the bridge, the scope of the inspection and whether the inspectors looked for asbestos was not clear. Additionally, while MCRR argued that it had no reason to anticipate that asbestos dust would escape the walls and harm Mr. Coffin, the court also concluded that this was a question of fact for the jury. While it was possible that Mr. Coffin’s exposure was unforeseeable if there was no evidence that dust was escaping the control room, Mr. Coffin testified that he observed dust when the walls of the bridge shook. As such, the foreseeability of exposure was also in dispute. Finally, MCRR argued that it was unforeseeable that a person would have been injured from the type of exposure that Mr. Coffin alleged. Essentially, arguing that Mr. Coffin’s exposure levels were minimal, and the asbestos fiber most likely in the wall boards was chrysotile, which MCRR argued was generally considered to present a negligible risk for development of mesothelioma. However, again, the court found that this was a question of fact.  

Given that MCRR’s motion for summary judgment was limited to the foreseeability of Mr. Coffin’s alleged injury, and not on the issues of breach of duty or causation, the court found sufficient issues of fact remained to warrant denial of the motion, holding that it could not “conclude at this stage that it was unforeseeable that harmful asbestos exposure would or could occur in Mr. Coffin’s workspaces at the bridge.”

The plaintiff, Victor Coffin, alleged he was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of his exposures to asbestos while working for Maine Central Railroad (MCRR). Specifically, Mr. Coffin alleged that he worked as a bridge operator at the Carlton Bridge, which was built under the supervision of the Maine Department of Transportation and completed in 1929. During the time period that Mr. Coffin worked on the bridge, however, his employer, MCRR, was 100 percent responsible for the maintenance of the bridge’s railroad track structure, lift span machinery, signaling, and bridge operations. Mr. Coffin alleged that he was exposed to asbestos from the walls of the control room, engine room, machine shop, and operating room of the bridge. He testified that the bridge would shake when trains and heavy trucks passed over it, and during a couple of hurricanes, causing the wall panels to shake together, creating dust. It was undisputed that asbestos-containing products were used during the initial construction of the bridge. However, MCRR argued that it was never aware of the existence of asbestos at the bridge during the period that it operated and maintained the bridge, and only made this discovery through an inspection by independent contractors in 2000.

MCRR moved for summary judgment, arguing that Mr. Coffin could not prove that it was foreseeable to MCRR that he would be exposed to asbestos during his employment at the bridge, and even if it could have known that the bridge walls contained asbestos, under the industrial standards at the time, MCRR had no reason to believe that there would be harmful exposure to Mr. Coffin. Essentially, MCRR argued that Mr. Coffin was unable to establish the foreseeability element of his FELA claim, emphasizing that “reasonable foreseeability of harm…is indeed an essential ingredient of FELA negligence.”

Considering the proofs offered by MCRR, the court found that the question of foreseeability should be left to the jury, as there was some reasonable basis to conclude that MCRR should have known about the presence of asbestos at the bridge. For instance, MCRR used asbestos products throughout its own system, and began a program of asbestos removal in the last few years of Mr. Coffin’s employment. While MCRR attempted to rely on an inspection conducted in 1984 to determine what safety and health problems existed at the bridge, the scope of the inspection and whether the inspectors looked for asbestos was not clear. Additionally, while MCRR argued that it had no reason to anticipate that asbestos dust would escape the walls and harm Mr. Coffin, the court also concluded that this was a question of fact for the jury. While it was possible that Mr. Coffin’s exposure was unforeseeable if there was no evidence that dust was escaping the control room, Mr. Coffin testified that he observed dust when the walls of the bridge shook. As such, the foreseeability of exposure was also in dispute. Finally, MCRR argued that it was unforeseeable that a person would have been injured from the type of exposure that Mr. Coffin alleged. Essentially, arguing that Mr. Coffin’s exposure levels were minimal, and the asbestos fiber most likely in the wall boards was chrysotile, which MCRR argued was generally considered to present a negligible risk for development of mesothelioma. However, again, the court found that this was a question of fact.  

Given that MCRR’s motion for summary judgment was limited to the foreseeability of Mr. Coffin’s alleged injury, and not on the issues of breach of duty or causation, the court found sufficient issues of fact remained to warrant denial of the motion, holding that it could not “conclude at this stage that it was unforeseeable that harmful asbestos exposure would or could occur in Mr. Coffin’s workspaces at the bridge.”