Cancer Allegations Against Railway Company in Texas to Continue

June 29, 2009

Although two juries have sided with BNSF Railway Co. in separate lawsuits claiming chemicals in a railroad tie plant in Central Texas caused cancer, dozens of similar lawsuits will go forward, an attorney said.

Jurors deliberated less than two hours June 25 before deciding against Dennis Davis, 56, who alleged the company deliberately misled workers at the railroad tie-manufacturing plant in Somerville while exposing them to carcinogenic chemicals. Davis’ attorneys asked jurors for at least $45.4 million in damages.

“I think what we have in Somerville, Texas, is an environmental tragedy,” said Jared Woodfill, the attorney for Davis and about 400 plaintiffs in at least 30 other lawsuits. “These two battles were setbacks, but we’re going to continue fighting until we can get justice for the people.”

But attorneys for BNSF Railway Co. said the verdict showed that “Somerville is fine.”

“This should be good news to the city of Somerville. I really think this lawyer-driven situation has cost them tourism and other business … because of the false rumors that have been spread,” lawyer Doug Poole said. “This is junk science. There’s nothing there.”

Also named in the lawsuits – which blame the plant for various cancers, birth defects and property damage – is Koppers Industries Inc., which in 1995 bought the Somerville plant about 90 miles northwest of Houston.

Last year jurors in Fort Worth rejected a lawsuit filed by a woman who had sued BNSF for at least $6 million. Linda Faust never worked at the Somerville plant but said she got cancer after 15 years of washing her husband’s chemical-tainted clothes and boots.

Attorneys for BNSF had blamed Faust’s disease, which required the removal of her stomach, on her half-pack-a-day cigarette smoking habit and a bacteria that causes stomach ailments.

Faust’s suit was the first to go to trial and was held in Fort Worth, the headquarters of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., which oversees BNSF Railway. Another suit, filed by a former employee who has since died of cancer, was settled for an undisclosed amount, Woodfill said.

During the recent nine-week trial in Caldwell, about 15 miles northwest of Somerville, witnesses for Davis testified about contamination at the plant and said they were not given safety equipment. Davis’ attorneys have said the company burned treated wood at night so it wouldn’t be seen or smelled, purposely misleading residents and government regulators.

Davis, who worked at the plant from 1971-95, was diagnosed in 2006 with digestive tract cancer that has since spread to his lungs, liver, appendix and skin. For much of the trial, Davis sat hunched over in the courtroom with a surgical mask covering his face, the Bryan-College Station Eagle reported.

But BNSF witnesses told jurors that there was no scientific link between chemical exposure and Davis’ type of cancers.

During closing arguments, Poole pointed to reports from government regulatory agencies that found no unsafe conditions at the plant. Poole told jurors that the case was “long on sympathy, short on science, short on truth.”

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