A New York state appeals court recently heard arguments in a case brought by a plaintiff who claims he developed mesothelioma cancer after he signed a settlement release with the company he accused of causing his mesothelioma cancer by exposure to asbestos. The New York Court of Appeals will decide whether part of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act negates a settlement release signed by the plaintiff in the case nearly two-decades ago and allow his claim against his previous employer to move forward.
The plaintiff in the case originally brought his asbestos lawsuit against Texaco in 2014, claiming he developed mesothelioma cancer while he served as a seaman in the Merchant Marine for nearly 40 years. The plaintiff had filed a previous lawsuit against Texaco, along with more than 100 other individuals, in federal court during the 1990s over a pulmonary injury suffered from exposure to asbestos and second-hand smoke on merchant ships.
Texaco and the plaintiff resolved the first claim, with the plaintiff and other co-plaintiffs signing settlement releases which sought to discharge the company from any future liability over the health effects of asbestos exposure. The settlement release read in part the plaintiff “understands that the long term effects of exposure to asbestos … may result in obtaining a new and different diagnosis from the diagnosis as of the date of this release.”
While at first glance the settlement release from the 1990s may seem to have shielded Texaco from any future claims brought by the plaintiff in this latest case, attorneys for the plaintiff argued that language contained in the Federal Employer’s Liability Act makes the claim viable. The plaintiff’s attorneys pointed to language in the act which prohibits contracts that would exempt a company from liability before an injury is known.
To date, lower courts have sided with the plaintiff, holding that Texaco could not enforce the settlement release with the plaintiff under the language of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act cited by the plaintiff. A Manhattan Supreme Court judge noted that federal precedent prevented such an agreement from exempting liability for future, unknown risks.
A panel of judges from the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed that same decision the previous year, ruling at the time of the settlement there was no way to know whether plaintiffs would develop mesothelioma and the release was subsequently unenforceable under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act. The case is an example of the lengths many large corporations will go to avoid liability for knowingly putting hard working employees at risk of asbestos exposure.
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