Judge: Emergency responders can sue over train disaster
The judge told CSX and Union Tank Car that the state's "Policeman and Fireman Rule" does not allow companies to harm responders without financial consequence
By Jamie Satterfield
The Knoxville News-Sentinel
MARYVILLE, Tenn. — Police, firefighters and other first responders sign up for inherently dangerous work, but that doesn't give citizens or businesses a blank check to harm them without financial consequences, a federal judge has ruled in the case of a Maryville train derailment.
Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan has turned aside a bid by CSX Transportation Inc. and Union Tank Car Co. to dismiss a class-action lawsuit filed by emergency responders in a July 2015 freight train derailment in Maryville that sent poisonous smoke into the air and more than 100 people to the hospital.
A broken axle on a single rail car hauling 24,000 gallons of a toxic chemical derailed the 57-car train, causing a fire that burned for 19 hours, authorities said.
About 5,000 people in a 2-mile radius in Blount County were forced to evacuate their homes. At least 87 people had to be treated, with 36 admitted to the hospital, and 10 first-responders also required treatment for the effects of exposure to the noxious smoke. A fish kill was later reported, and area wells tested.
The rail car was carrying a chemical, acrylonitrile, used in the manufacture of plastics. The substance is considered carcinogenic, and exposure can burn the skin, inflame the lining of the lungs, throat and nose, and cause headaches, nausea and dizziness. Cyanide is a byproduct of burning acrylonitrile.
Union Tank Car Co. manufactured the rail car at issue. CSX is accused, among other things, of dragging the rail car nearly 10 miles after the axle broke, which, in turn, caused it to rupture and the derailment to occur. Both companies face class-action lawsuits in U.S. District Court from emergency responders in one action, and property owners in another.
The firms wanted the emergency responders' lawsuit tossed out in its entirety, arguing Tennessee has what's known as the Policemen and Firemen's Rule. Under the rule, police and emergency workers are barred from suing citizens and business owners for injuries those responders suffer on the job.
The principle behind the rule is this: Police and emergency workers know their jobs carry danger of injury and even death. They willingly sign up for that risk. If they could sue the citizens and business owners for whom they are tasked with protecting and serving, people would be loathe to call them for help.
But Varlan ruled this month that the rule is not a complete bar to lawsuits by emergency responders. The Tennessee Supreme Court has opined emergency responders can sue if their injuries are the result of "a citizen's intentional, malicious or reckless misconduct."
In the train derailment, the injured emergency responders contend they toiled hours at the derailment site without being told the smoke was toxic. They did not sign up voluntarily for that kind of risk, Varlan ruled.
"Accordingly, the court finds that the ... plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that being exposed to toxic chemicals is not a reasonably expected danger, given the nature of the police officers' position of employment," Varlan wrote. "As a result, the policemen and firemen's rule will not operate to preclude their claims against CSX and UTC."
Varlan has dismissed some claims alleged in both lawsuits but is refusing to toss out either in its entirety. He concluded both emergency responders and property owners have, so far, made a case both firms were negligent and that negligence resulted in actual damages.
CSX has complained in prior court filings that it paid more than $3.5 million in damages to evacuated citizens and business owners whose firms were shut down for economic losses and medical bills and to the governments of Maryville and Blount County for its expenses. But its argument that the class-action lawsuits are mere money grabs has failed to convince either U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley or Varlan to dismiss the cases.
(c)2016 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)