April 19, 2021

Volume XI, Number 109


April 16, 2021

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

Wisconsin Jury Determines Railroad Workers Leukemia was Due to Creosote Exposure

A jury in Madison county ruled against the Union Pacific Railroad, awarding a former worker $7.5 million in damages for injuries linked to long term exposure to creosote and other toxic materials during his 31-year career as a railroad worker. The plaintiff, Mr. Brown was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and alleged that the diagnosis was due to the failure of his employer to provide protective equipment despite knowing of the dangers linked with the substances workers were exposed to on a regular basis.

Exposure to Toxic Chemicals Responsible for Multiple Medical Conditions

Mr. Brown worked for the Chicago & North Western Railway for 18 years before it was taken over by the Union Pacific. During his time at CNW, he alleges that he was exposed to toxic chemicals on such a routine basis that his clothing often became soaked with substances such as creosote, lead and degreasing solvents. Evidence exists that suggests the railroad industry was aware of the health risks associated with these substances for decades but failed to warn employees or provide equipment that would prevent contamination.

He currently suffers from a myriad of medical conditions that include poor vision, injuries to his feet and legs, impotence, graft versus host disease, memory loss and cancer. He was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome prior to a 2008 diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. In addition to suffering from these conditions, his medications have caused marked weight gain, which only exacerbates his medical conditions and suffering.

Job Responsibilities Increased Brown’s Risk

Brown’s job functions included picking up rail ties, dropping them off and installing soaking wet ties, which were damp with solvents, creosote and other hazardous materials. He would need to wash the ties and the equipment, covering his entire body in toxic substances and soaking his clothing. His claim alleged that the contamination of his clothing is how the substances soaked his skin. Creosote often enters the body through the skin, consumption of contaminated water and food or through particulate in the air.

The only protective equipment CNW provided workers with were gloves and hard hats until the railroad was taken over by the Union Pacific in 1986. Union Pacific provided more comprehensive equipment, but Brown’s attorney argued that it should be held liable for the actions of its interests prior to acquisition.

Studies have shown clinical links between lead, creosote and certain solvents and health problems for a long time. Some experts believe that the railroad was privy to these connections for over a century. Brown’s claim stated that CNW knew about the health concerns and how to reduce exposure to the contaminants but chose not to provide adequate protective gear.

The Dog and Pony Show

The Union Pacific Railroad’s defense team made arguments later deemed by the plaintiff’s attorney to be a dog and pony show. Aside from attempting to exonerate the Union Pacific on the grounds that the exposure occurred while Brown was an employee of CNW, the defense questioned the science linking creosote exposure to cancer. Benzene is one of the substances found in creosote that has serious adverse health effects on those exposed, but the defense claimed that the amount of benzene workers were exposed too was not significant enough to pose a risk.

In closing arguments, the plaintiff’s attorney derided these arguments, amounting them to the allegation that Brown wasn’t poisoned enough to deserve compensation. Brown’s lawyer was seeking $8 million in the case and the Madison County jury came close to that figure when awarding him $7.5 million in damages. This ruling is likely to influence future cases as more workers and their families come forward now that the link between creosote exposure and cancer has been made public.

Copyright © 2021, Rosenfeld Injury LawyersNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 44



About this Author

Jonathan Rosenfeld, Personal Injury Lawyer, Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers

I’m an Illinois lawyer with a nationwide practice who represents members of our society who have been seriously injured or killed due to the irresponsible acts of an individual or company. The injured have the same rights as everyone else — to be treated with compassion and respect— but their vulnerability means they need special protection and representation against those who injure, neglect or abuse them. This is my life’s work.

I recognize that an injured person has one opportunity to get the compensation that the law allows. I am fully dedicated and mindful of this...