Limitations Challenge on Railroad Worker’s FELA Claim Denied

ILLINOIS — The plaintiff Theresa Romcoe filed suit under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) against the defendants, Illinois Central Railroad Company and Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation dba Metra Rail, alleging that her husband had passed away from esophageal cancer as a result of exposure to asbestos during the course of his employment. Specifically, the decedent had worked in several positions, including as a switchman to conductor from 1974-1984.  The decedent was diagnosed with cancer on September 5, 2013 and passed on November 25, 2014. The plaintiff filed suit on November 24, 2017. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint arguing that  the complaint should have been filed within three years of the date of  the decedent’s cancer diagnosis or by September 6, 2016. The plaintiff countered and argued that the date to start the clock for the statute of limitations was March 1, 2016 when she first saw a television advertisement for railroad workers suffering from cancer from their work environment. She also argued that the decedent’s other medical ailments prior to passing would have led any reasonable person to not “attribute his cancer to his work environment.”

The court stated in its analysis that a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12 (b)(6) challenges the complaint itself. Those challenges include a challenge on statute of limitations. In FELA claims, the statute of limitations is determined by a two-part process. First, is notice of injury followed by notice of cause according to the court. The parties accepted that the date of notice of injury was that date of the decedent’s cancer diagnosis. The next step is whether the plaintiff knew or should have known of the cause of the injury. The defendants argued that:

  1. The plaintiff should have known that the injury was caused by the decedent’s work environment when the diagnosis was rendered
  2. The plaintiff’s complaint fails as the decedent never “suspected his employment to be a possible cause or contributing factor” of his diagnosis.

The court quickly pointed out that the complaint itself did not identify the date on which the decedent “knew or suspected that his railroad work exposure would have been a possible cause or contributing factor of his cancer.” Therefore, the challenge made by the defendants was that either the FELA claim expired when the plaintiff died or the plaintiff failed to investigate the relation between the decedent’s work and his cancer diagnosis. The court noted that the cases upon which the defendants relied were distinguishable from the instant matter because those cases had the benefit of a more developed factual record. As to the plaintiff’s second argument, the court noted that the representative of the estate still could have brought suit even if the decedent had not suspected his injury to be related to his work environment. As for whether the plaintiff failed to investigate her claims, the court concluded that that issue was reserved for the trier of fact and was not to be decided at this stage. Consequently, the motion to dismiss was denied. However, the court pointed out that although the motion was denied the defendants will have “several more opportunities to” raise statute of limitations after discovery has been completed.

Read the case decision here.