Blackmon v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtALAN E. HIGHERS
PartiesDELORES BLACKMON, Individually and as surviving spouse and personal representative of DOLPHUS H. BLACKMON v. ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY, Individually and successor-in-interest to Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad Company, and Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Company, ET AL.
Docket NumberNo. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV
Decision Date16 May 2014

DELORES BLACKMON, Individually and as surviving spouse
and personal representative of DOLPHUS H. BLACKMON
v.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY,
Individually and successor-in-interest to Gulf,
Mobile & Ohio Railroad Company, and Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Company, ET AL.

No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV

COURT OF APPEALS OF TENNESSEE AT JACKSON

February 18, 2014 Session
Filed May 16, 2014


Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Madison County
No. C-08-280
Roy B. Morgan, Jr., Judge

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act, alleging that her husband was exposed to toxic substances, including asbestos and other chemicals, during his employment with the defendant railroad and that such exposure led to his death from mesothelioma. The railroad filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the deceased employee had executed a release, when he settled previous litigation with the railroad, which served to bar the current litigation. The trial court granted the railroad's motion for summary judgment based on the release. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

Tenn. R. App. P. 3; Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and
Remanded

ALAN E. HIGHERS, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DAVID R. FARMER, J., and HOLLY M. KIRBY,J., joined.

Jimmy F. Rodgers, Jr., Chattanooga, Tennessee; John E. ("Rett") Guerry, III, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Joe H. Byrd, Jr., Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellants, Delores Blackmon, Individually and as surviving spouse and personal representative of Dolphus H. Blackmon

Thomas R. Peters, Michael C. Hermann, Belleville, Illinois; Brooks E. Kostakis, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Illinois Central Railroad Company

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OPINION

I. FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Dolphus H. Blackmon was employed as a machinist with Illinois Central Railroad Company and its predecessors from 1945 until he retired in 1989. Mr. Blackmon died in May 2008, allegedly as a result of pleural mesothelioma. In September 2008, the instant case was filed by Plaintiff Delores Blackmon, acting individually and as surviving spouse and personal representative of Dolphus H. Blackmon, against Illinois Central Railroad Company ("Illinois Central") and numerous other defendants. Relevant to this appeal, the complaint alleged that Mr. Blackmon was exposed to "toxic substances, including but not limited to asbestos, asbestos dust, asbestos-containing products, diesel exhaust or chemicals" during his employment with Illinois Central between 1945 and 1989 and that such exposure allegedly caused him to develop mesothelioma. The complaint alleged that Illinois Central was liable for the wrongful death of Mr. Blackmon pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. § 51.1

Illinois Central filed an answer claiming, among other things, that Plaintiff's claims were barred by a release that Mr. Blackmon had executed in connection with the settlement of another FELA lawsuit Mr. Blackmon had filed against Illinois Central several years earlier. In the previous lawsuit, Mr. Blackmon had alleged that he suffered from a different disease, asbestosis, as a result of his exposure to asbestos during his employment with Illinois

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Central.2 Mr. Blackmon settled the asbestosis lawsuit with Illinois Central in October 2002 by executing a "Release" in exchange for a lump sum payment of $28,000. The Release provided, in part, that Mr. Blackmon released Illinois Central from "any and all claims arising out of Dolphus Blackmon's employment." Among other things, the Release specifically stated that Illinois Central was released "from any and all claims, losses, damages, injuries, conditions or diseases, including, but not limited to . . . mesothelioma, or any other disease allegedly resulting in any manner from the employment of Dolphus Blackmon or any other medical condition allegedly related to the employment of Dolphus Blackmon." It stated that Illinois Central was released from "any and all claims, losses, damages and injuries directly or indirectly caused by or resulting from any alleged exposure to asbestos, . . . diesel fumes, . . . and any and all other fumes, dusts, mists, gases, and vapors from any material, chemical, or agent which allegedly occurred while Dolphus Blackmon was in the employment of the parties released." The Release was signed by Mr. Blackmon and by his attorney.

Illinois Central filed a motion for summary judgment based upon the Release. Illinois Central asserted that the Release unambiguously released any claims arising out of Mr. Blackmon's exposure to asbestos or chemicals, including those for mesothelioma. Illinois Central also contended that the Release was valid and enforceable under the FELA. Plaintiff filed a response, arguing that the terms of the Release did not encompass the claims in the present case and that the Release was void and unenforceable pursuant to the FELA.

Following a hearing in April 2009, the trial court entered an order granting summary judgment to Illinois Central, finding the Release valid and enforceable as a bar to Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff's claims against other defendants remained pending but were ultimately

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resolved by an order of voluntary dismissal in June 2013. Plaintiff then filed a notice of appeal, challenging the trial court's April 2009 order granting summary judgment to Illinois Central.

II. ISSUES PRESENTED

On appeal, Plaintiff presents the following issues, slightly restated, for review:

1. Whether the trial court erred in construing the language of the Release as applying to future claims;
2. Whether the trial court erred by determining the validity of the Release under the FELA using the approach taken by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Wicker v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 142 F.3d 690 (3rd Cir. 1998), in light of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Norfolk & Western Railway v. Ayers, 538 U.S. 135 (2003); and
3. Whether the trial court erred in failing to heed the Third Circuit's caution in Wicker against boilerplate language in release agreements.

For the following reasons, we reverse the trial court's order granting summary judgment to Illinois Central, and we remand for further proceedings.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The FELA provides for concurrent jurisdiction of the state and federal courts over FELA claims. Jordan, 2009 WL 112561, at *6 (citing Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Sorrell, 549 U.S. 158, 165-66 (2007)); Jennings v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 993 S.W.2d 66, 70 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998). Although, substantively, FELA actions are governed by federal law, when FELA cases are tried in state courts, the applicable state rules generally govern procedural matters. Mills v. CSX Transp., Inc., 300 S.W.3d 627, 631 (Tenn. 2009); May v. Illinois Central R.R. Co., 361 S.W.3d 511, 518 n.9 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2011); Jennings, 993 S.W.2d at 70. Accordingly, we will consider Illinois Central's motion for summary judgment under the familiar standards of Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56. See Mills, 300 S.W.3d at 631 (applying Tennessee summary judgment standard in a FELA case); Jennings, 993 S.W.2d at 70 (same).

A motion for summary judgment should be granted only "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to

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a judgment as a matter of law." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. "The party seeking the summary judgment has the burden of demonstrating that no genuine disputes of material fact exist and that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Green v. Green, 293 S.W.3d 493, 513 (Tenn. 2009) (citing Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry., 271 S.W.3d 76, 83 (Tenn. 2008); Amos v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson County, 259 S.W.3d 705, 710 (Tenn. 2008)). "The moving party may make the required showing and therefore shift the burden of production to the nonmoving party by either: (1) affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim; or (2) showing that the nonmoving party cannot prove an essential element of the claim at trial." Martin, 271 S.W.3d at 83 (citing Hannan v. Alltel Publ'g Co., 270 S.W.3d 1, 5 (Tenn. 2008)). In order to negate an essential element of the claim, "the moving party must point to evidence that tends to disprove an essential factual claim made by the nonmoving party." Id. at 84 (citing Blair v. W. Town Mall, 130 S.W.3d 761, 768 (Tenn. 2004)). "If the moving party is unable to make the required showing, then its motion for summary judgment will fail." Id. (citing Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208, 215 (Tenn. 1993)). If the moving party does make a properly supported motion, the nonmoving party is required to produce evidence of specific facts establishing that genuine issues of material fact exist. Id. at 84 (citing McCarley v. West Quality Food Serv., 960 S.W.2d 585, 588 (Tenn. 1998); Byrd, 847 S.W.2d at 215). The resolution of a motion for summary judgment is a matter of law, which we review de novo with no presumption of...

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