FELA Indictments

In a 1995 hearing that ended up becoming pivotal in chemical solvent lawsuits, an internationally recognized physician testified on behalf of railroad workers. Once playing a key role in the government’s understanding of solvent neurotoxicity, the former Harvard University professor and former deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) testified at a hearing that was overseeing 82 CSX chemical solvent lawsuits to determine if toxic encephalopathy diagnoses were “junk science,” as CSX and other railroad companies alleged the diagnoses were.

Displaying evidence dating back to the 19th century, the physician showed the effects of solvent toxicity among French workers suffering depression and memory problems. Into the 20th century, reports of solvent effects increased. By 1985, dozens of medical studies on the adverse health effects of chemical solvents resulted in two international conferences. In 1987, a NIOSH bulletin found “statically significant increases in neurobehavioral effects in workers chronically exposed to organic solvents.”

Testimony was presented for four days until the Circuit Court Judge ruled on behalf of the railroad workers. Due in large part to the testimony from the physician, the judge found CSX’s classification of solvent exposure leading to toxic encephalopathy diagnoses as “junk science” to be untrue, instead finding the connection to be “grounded in scientific theory.” Although CSX appealed the ruling, the decision was upheld, even when CSX tried unsuccessfully to get the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

Just after the 1995 hearing, CSX settled 81 of the 82 Nashville solvent cases in 1998 and 1999. Since then, the debate between the exposure to solvents and how much is required to suffer toxic effects has continued. FELA indictments have continued and court testimony involving railroad workers, as well as internal company documents and interviews has suggested potentially thousands of railroad workers have heavily exposed to solvents for many years despite company knowledge of the dangers.

A focus of the solvent/brain damage debate is the level of exposure to chemical solvents that must be present before a worker suffers serious health effects. Some experts think there needs to be extremely high levels of solvents present for a long duration of time before any adverse health effects are suffered, but some experts argue the toxicity is so dangerous exposure for just a short time can lead to permanent neurological disability. Railroad companies have continued to deny the link between solvent exposure and brain damage but have so far paid tens of millions of dollars settling solvent lawsuits.

For more information on FELA indictments, please contact a FELA attorney.