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Murphy v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

March 13, 2019

IRENE MURPHY, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF ALTON MURPHY, DECEASED APPELLANT
v.
UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE JEFFERSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 35CV-16-111] HONORABLE JODI RAINES DENNIS, JUDGE.

          Law Offices of Patrick S. O'Brien, LLC, by: Patrick S. O'Brien; and McKissic & Associates, PLLC, by: Gene S. McKissic, Sr., for appellant.

          Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP, by: Martin A. Kasten, for appellee.

          DAVID M. GLOVER, JUDGE.

         Irene Murphy filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, alleging that Union Pacific Railroad Company (Union Pacific) negligently failed to protect her husband, Alton Murphy, from exposure to toxic chemicals during his employment with the railroad. The complaint alleged that the railroad's negligence caused Mr. Murphy to develop multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer, leading to his death in 2014. Union Pacific filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Mr. and Mrs. Murphy previously released the railroad from any further liability for toxic exposure as part of a negotiated settlement of another claim for a lung injury in 2007. The circuit court agreed and granted Union Pacific's motion.

         Irene now appeals the judgment, arguing that it should be reversed because the prior release is void under section 5 of the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), which prohibits contracts that enable railroads "to exempt [themselves] from any liability[.]" 45 U.S.C § 55. According to Irene, the release is void under FELA because it goes beyond the injury and risk of future injury that were known to her and Mr. Murphy at the time they negotiated the release.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Alton Murphy worked for Union Pacific for thirty years. He worked as a manual laborer, then as a machine operator, before his retirement in 2002. In 2006, Mr. Murphy pursued a claim against the railroad, presumably alleging that his exposure to toxic substances during his employment caused him to suffer from pneumoconiosis, a lung disease that caused him shortness of breath. The claim apparently never went to suit. Mr. Murphy and Irene settled the claim with Union Pacific in 2007. In exchange for $20, 000 the Murphys both signed a release that, in pertinent part, provided as follows:

         DEFINITIONS

3. "Occupational Exposures," as used herein, shall mean and include any and all exposures to which Alton Murphy was exposed as an employee of Union Pacific. Occupational Exposures includes any and all exposures by any method, including exposures by breathing, touching, ingesting, or otherwise. Occupational Exposures includes any and all exposures to toxic materials, metals, or chemicals, including without limitation asbestos, dusts, fumes, vapors, smells, gases, fuels, combustion products and by-products, exhausts, solvents, cleaners, benzene, vinyl chloride, toluene, pesticides, herbicides, weed defoliants, lubricants, paints, paint thinners, silica and/or any other cancer causing agents, whether alleged or not alleged, caused by or contributed by or in any way the legal responsibility of [Union Pacific].

         RECITALS

1.Alton Murphy filed a claim against Union Pacific seeking compensation as a result of Alton Murphy's alleged diseases . . . from Occupational Exposures while he was employed by Union Pacific.
2.Union Pacific, without in any way admitting liability with reference to the claim asserted by Murphy, desire[s] to reach full and final compromise of all claims arising from Alton Murphy's alleged injury from Occupational Exposures, including any cancers, lung-related diseases and/or death, while Alton Murphy was employed by Union Pacific.
3.Murphy desires to reach full and final compromise of all claims asserted against Union Pacific in the ...

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