Sinclair v. Burl. nor. and Santa Fe Ry. Co., No. DA 07-0686.

Docket NºNo. DA 07-0686.
Citation347 Mont. 395, 2008 MT 424, 200 P.3d 46
Case DateDecember 16, 2008
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana
200 P.3d 46
2008 MT 424
347 Mont. 395
Jason SINCLAIR, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
BURLINGTON NORTHERN AND SANTA FE RAILWAY COMPANY, a Delaware Corporation, and Scott Jacobsen, Defendants and Appellees.
No. DA 07-0686.
Supreme Court of Montana.
Submitted on Briefs September 23, 2008.
Decided December 16, 2008.

[200 P.3d 48]

For Appellant: Erik B. Thueson, Thueson Law Office, Helena, Montana, James T. Towe, Towe Law Offices, Missoula, Montana.

[200 P.3d 49]

For Appellees: Jeff Hedger, James E. Roberts, Hedger Friend & Roberts, P.L.L.C., Billings, Montana.

Justice PATRICIA O. COTTER delivered the Opinion of the Court.


¶ 1 Jason Sinclair (Sinclair) appeals the dismissal of his claims against Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF) in the Eighth Judicial District, Cascade County. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 2 Sinclair was an employee of BNSF from 1994 to 2001. In December 2001, Sinclair reported to BNSF that he had sustained injuries during his employment. He attributed his injuries to a Freightliner FL-80 truck in which he rode regularly in order to perform his job. BNSF denied liability for the injuries. Sinclair consequently filed a claim under the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51, on January 7, 2002, in the Eighth Judicial District Court. Sinclair sought damages for cumulative trauma due to riding in the FL-80 work truck and damages due to a separate slip and fall injury. Discovery proceeded and the case went to trial on March 10, 2003.

¶ 3 On the third day of trial, the parties settled. At that time, Sinclair signed a Release and Settlement Agreement with BNSF. The release stated that Sinclair would "release and forever discharge" BNSF and any of its predecessor, successor, or affiliated companies "from all claims and liabilities of every kind of nature, INCLUDING CLAIMS FOR INJURIES, ILLNESSES OR DAMAGES, IF ANY, WHICH ARE UNKNOWN TO ME AT THE PRESENT TIME. ..." The release then listed two specific work-related accidents which occurred while Sinclair was working as a truck driver for BNSF. The release also contained clauses "C" and "D," releasing:

C. Any and all claims, suits, demands, actions, damages, costs and expenses of any type, past present or future, known or unknown, which have been made or which could have been made, which I, Jason O. Sinclair, [have] by reason of any physical, psychological, mental or emotional claims, stress, cumulative trauma and repetitive motion injuries, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, labor claims, claims under the American with Disabilities Act, including claims for negligent mismanagement or claims that could potentially be made pursuant to MCA 39-2-703 or any similar state or federal law, civil rights claims, federal or state employment statutes, or any other claims relating to any employment practices, claims handling practices, occupational hearing loss, hearing impairment, tinnitus, hearing disorders of any type, including any increased risk of further hearing disorder, and any respiratory, immunological, neurological, organic, or organ condition, injury, illness or disease caused or aggravated by exposure to stress, occupational exposures to fumes, chemicals, smoke, dust, gases, heavy metals, or any other substances or situation while employed by [BNSF] including any claim for present or future reinstatement which I hereby expressly waive and release.

It is agreed and understood that the claims which were or could have been made or brought by Jason O. Sinclair, including, but limited to, injuries to the spine, brain and any other cumulative injuries for claims for other injuries or illnesses referenced in the medical records or described by Jason O. Sinclair in his lawsuit are herein released.

¶ 4 During discovery in his suit against BNSF, Sinclair had requested information and documents concerning problems with the FL-80 truck. Sinclair claims that BNSF did not produce any information indicating any major problems with the FL-80 truck, and that BNSF's claims adjustor Scott Jacobson (Jacobson) verified BNSF's discovery responses. Sinclair's trial counsel made additional discovery requests in this regard, but Sinclair claims nothing further was produced. As it turns out, a co-worker of Sinclair named Mike Dolan (Dolan) had filed a similar suit against BNSF, alleging that he had been injured from riding in an FL-80 truck. Dolan

200 P.3d 50

also made discovery requests with BNSF concerning the FL-80 truck. After deposing Jacobsen, Dolan learned of additional information, not heretofore disclosed neither to himself nor Sinclair, concerning the FL-80 truck in connection with a lawsuit in Missouri against BNSF. Dolan then contacted attorneys involved in the Missouri litigation and obtained information concerning the FL-80 truck. Sinclair claims that the information obtained by Dolan shows that BNSF had safety complaints and back injury reports about the FL-80 truck dating back as far as 1999. Sinclair also claims that further discovery by Dolan revealed that BNSF had knowledge that the FL-80 truck was responsible for back injuries to its employees.

¶ 5 Because he did not learn of the foregoing information until after his suit against BNSF had settled, Sinclair filed a new complaint against BNSF on March 9, 2004. In it, he contended that before and during his trial, BNSF had represented to him and the jury that the FL-80 was a safe truck when, in fact, it knew otherwise. Sinclair contended that BNSF knew about problems with the FL-80 truck and failed to produce this information to him in response to his discovery requests.

¶ 6 Sinclair's new complaint initially contained five counts. Count I asserted a new cause of action for negligence against BNSF, alleging that Sinclair had been overexposed to poisonous or hazardous fumes, vapors, dust, and particles while he performed his duties as a welder for BNSF. Sinclair alleged that BNSF had failed to provide him with appropriate respiratory protection when he performed some welding for BNSF in 2001, and that during this time he was exposed to toxic manganese fumes. Sinclair alleged in this new count that he suffered subtle neurotoxic damages over the course of his career, but was unaware of this damage until 2003 when he was advised that several symptoms he had been suffering (including tremors in his hands, balance difficulties, and weakness in his legs) had been caused by overexposure to toxic fumes at his workplace. Sinclair further alleged that BNSF had knowledge of Sinclair's potential susceptibility to injury from chemical exposures dating back to at least 1996.1

¶ 7 Count II stated a bad faith claim in which Sinclair alleged BNSF violated its duty to act promptly, fairly, and in good faith to settle his claim. In particular, Sinclair alleged that BNSF withheld information it had concerning the FL-80 truck during discovery in the initial suit which, if revealed, would have shown that liability was clear, causation was clearly established, and that BNSF's defenses were not meritorious. Sinclair claimed that the withholding of this information during his previous lawsuit affected his ability to present his case to the District Court and the jury, and ultimately led to his acceptance of a settlement for less than a reasonable and fair amount.

¶ 8 Count III stated a fraud claim. In this count, Sinclair alleged that BNSF's failure to provide information requested by him concerning its knowledge of the FL-80 truck constituted fraud under Montana law. Sinclair alleged that BNSF knew that the withheld information concerning the FL-80 truck had a direct bearing on the validity of its defenses, as well as liability and causation. In spite of this, Sinclair claims that BNSF took positions on the safety of the FL-80 truck which were contrary to its internal documents, and caused him to settle for a lesser amount than he would have if he had known this information. Sinclair alleged that BNSF perpetrated a fraud both upon him and the court, and that BNSF breached its duties under both Montana common and statutory law in concealing this information from him in order to gain an unfair advantage. Count IV stated a punitive damages claim, stemming from BNSF's alleged attempts to conceal information pertaining to the liability and causation issues involved in Sinclair's lawsuit.

200 P.3d 51

¶ 9 Count V, entitled "release issues," related to the release which Sinclair signed when he settled his previous suit. Sinclair alleged the release was overly broad, unconscionable, not supported by adequate consideration, and based on concealment, deceit, fraud, and mutual mistake of fact. Accordingly, Sinclair asserted the release could not be asserted as a defense to any of his present claims against BNSF. Sinclair asserted that he was unaware of any system-wide problems with the FL-80 truck and that if BNSF and Jacobsen were similarly unaware of such information, then the release was based upon a mutual mistake of fact. Finally, he specifically alleged that the injury claims asserted in his new complaint were not at issue in his previous trial, had not been diagnosed, and thus were not part of the earlier settlement and accompanying release.

¶ 10 BNSF subsequently moved the District Court to dismiss Counts II, III, and IV of Sinclair's complaint. On November 16, 2004, Sinclair amended his complaint, adding an alternative claim under FELA (alternative FELA claim). This claim reads in pertinent part as follows:

BNSF negligently assigned Mr. Sinclair to unsafe work practices, tools and equipment over the course of his career, including but not limited to, the FL-80 truck described above. The BNSF knew that this and identical trucks were dangerous and causing back injuries to its workforce, yet concealed this information from Mr. Sinclair and other workers. Mr. Sinclair was...

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17 practice notes
  • Ratliff v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., No. 34156.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 12, 2009
    ...540, 734 N.W.2d 228 (2007); Illinois Cent. R.R. Co. v. Acuff, 950 So.2d 947 (Miss.2006); Sinclair v. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 347 Mont. 395, 200 P.3d 46 (2008); Oliverio v. Consol. Rail Corp., 14 Misc.3d 219, 822 680 S.E.2d 38 N.Y.S.2d 699 (N.Y.Sup.Ct.2006); Aswad v. Norfolk S. Ry.......
  • Blackmon v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • May 16, 2014
    ...claims based on specific risksPage 12known to the parties to be appropriate."); Sinclair v. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 347 Mont. 395, 413, 200 P.3d 46, 59 (Mont. 2008) ("The Wicker approach to the scope and validity of FELA releases in light of § 5 of FELA has been adopted appr......
  • Dannels v. BNSF Ry. Co., DA 19-0343
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • March 23, 2021
    ...ruling de novo, applying the criteria set forth in M. R. Civ. P. 56. 483 P.3d 499 Sinclair v. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. , 2008 MT 424, ¶ 26, 347 Mont. 395, 200 P.3d 46. Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates from "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosur......
  • Larson v. State, DA 18-0414
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • January 30, 2019
    ...law reviewed de novo. Anderson v. ReconTrust Co., N.A. , 2017 MT 313, ¶ 7, 390 Mont. 12, 407 P.3d 692 (citing Sinclair v. BNSF Ry. Co. , 2008 MT 424, ¶ 25, 347 Mont. 395, 200 P.3d 46 ). Whether a cognizable claim is nonetheless non-justiciable as a political question or due to lack of stand......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
17 cases
  • Ratliff v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., No. 34156.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 12, 2009
    ...540, 734 N.W.2d 228 (2007); Illinois Cent. R.R. Co. v. Acuff, 950 So.2d 947 (Miss.2006); Sinclair v. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 347 Mont. 395, 200 P.3d 46 (2008); Oliverio v. Consol. Rail Corp., 14 Misc.3d 219, 822 680 S.E.2d 38 N.Y.S.2d 699 (N.Y.Sup.Ct.2006); Aswad v. Norfolk S. Ry.......
  • Blackmon v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • May 16, 2014
    ...claims based on specific risksPage 12known to the parties to be appropriate."); Sinclair v. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 347 Mont. 395, 413, 200 P.3d 46, 59 (Mont. 2008) ("The Wicker approach to the scope and validity of FELA releases in light of § 5 of FELA has been adopted appr......
  • In re Hettick, Bankruptcy No. 04-60081-7.
    • United States
    • United States Bankruptcy Courts. Ninth Circuit. U.S. Bankruptcy Court — District of Montana
    • February 25, 2009
    ...complaint is construed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Reidelbach, ¶ 14 Sinclair v. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Ry. Co., 2008 MT 424, ¶ 25, 347 Mont. 395, ¶ 25, 200 P.3d 46, ¶ 25; see also Evanns v. AT&T Corp., 229 F.3d 837, 839 (9th Cir.2001); Steckman v. Hart Brewing, Inc......
  • Dannels v. BNSF Ry. Co., DA 19-0343
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • March 23, 2021
    ...ruling de novo, applying the criteria set forth in M. R. Civ. P. 56. 483 P.3d 499 Sinclair v. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. , 2008 MT 424, ¶ 26, 347 Mont. 395, 200 P.3d 46. Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates from "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosur......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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