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Del Raso v. Elgin

JUNE 16, 1967.




Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. ELMER N. HOLMGREN, Judge, presiding. Reversed and remanded.


The four plaintiffs brought an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act *fn1 to recover for the injuries they incurred from lead poisoning they sustained while in the employ of the defendant railroad. The jury brought in separate verdicts for each of the plaintiffs in sums of $14,500 for Del Raso, $12,500 for Dalpiaz, $8,000 for Sybert, and $3,000 for Benson. Judgment was entered on the verdicts. The court denied defendant's motions for judgments notwithstanding the verdict, or, in the alternative, for a new trial. From these judgments and from the order denying the motions after verdict, the defendant brings this appeal.

It is defendant's position that there was not sufficient evidence to show that it knew or should have known of the presence of lead paint on the railway cars on which plaintiffs were working; that the court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the issue of defendant's lack of knowledge of the existence of a hazard of lead poisoning; and that the court erred in withdrawing the issue of contributory negligence from the jury. Moreover, defendant argues that the verdicts were excessive.

Defendant had employed the four plaintiffs for several years and in October of 1955 had assigned them to stripping a particular series of gondola cars (the 31,000 series) prior to defendant's rebuilding such cars. As shown by the evidence, a gondola car is an all-steel car with a flat door, sides about five feet high, and no roof. To strip such a car defendant's employees remove the rivets and then pull out the floor with a crane. Other parts of the car are removed in a certain order thereafter. The plaintiffs were assigned to working on the initial stage of the stripping process. The critical event in their work, as it concerns this case, is the method by which they removed the rivets, by "burning" them. The intense flame from an acetylene torch was directed onto a rivet head which had been painted over; when it was "cherry red" the rivet head would be blasted off. However, as the area heated the paint thereabouts would smolder and boil, releasing noxious smoke and fumes. These gaseous wastes would be inhaled to some extent by the operator of the torch, since he had to hold the flame of the torch at least 18 to 20 inches away from his face so that he could see what he was doing, and inasmuch as the defendant had not supplied the operator with any protective breathing device until after plaintiffs became ill. Benson, for example, testified:

"That is hot metal and the paint would be smoking all the time you were cutting the rivet out. The smoke would be going in your face and the metal would be flying back at you. You had to do it the best way you could because you had to be close or you coudn't get the rivets out successfully. After you had been doing this work for a couple of hours you would be just as black as coal."

Dalpiaz stated that "when you would burn off the paint you would get sort of vapor and fumes and black smoke." Sybert testified that "we had to burn the rivets and blow them and got the fumes which would make you cough and feel faint." The evidence showed that each man removed approximately 250 to 300 rivets by this process each 8-hour working day. The defendant supplied plaintiffs with protective clothing (plain overalls, canvas jacket, burner's goggles, leather gloves and leather leggings) but not with inhalators or masks until three months after plaintiffs began complaining that they thought the smoke was making them ill.

Benson testified that he was assigned to the burning job in the first week of October 1955; that in the latter part of that month he began to suffer from nausea, stomach pains, and loss of appetite; that in the following month these disorders increased and he felt pains in his legs. At that time the defendant had the series 30,000 and 31,000 gondola cars on the stripping tracks. Benson told the court that the men on the burning job noted that there was a red paint under the outer coating of black paint, and that the men called this undercoating "lead paint." In October and November, according to Benson's testimony, he approached his foreman, one Ernie Koleto (who was deceased at the time of the trial), and complained that the smoke was bothering him and that he thought it was something in the paint; Koleto replied that if Benson didn't want the work he could go home; Benson returned to work, but again complained in November, at which time Koleto told him to return to work, that "it must be old age creeping up. . . ." After these two conversations with Koleto, Benson testified, the defendant company still did not provide Benson with any equipment to protect him from the fumes. Prior to the time he was hospitalized, Benson and several of his fellow employees were laid off for nine days after they had taken an unauthorized break from the burning job; at that time they told the supervisor that the smoke was making them sick and they would like to get off the burning job, but the supervisor refused. Benson further testified that in early February 1956 when he went to his doctor he immediately thereafter stopped working as a burner, and entered the hospital where he was placed under the care of defendant's doctor.

The testimony of Del Raso, Sybert and Dalpiaz was substantially similar. Del Raso went to his physician in December; Sybert went on about December 28 to see a doctor who was associated with defendant's doctor; Dalpiaz went in February to see a doctor who sent him back to the railroad, and after seeing his general foreman, was sent to the hospital.

It was brought out in testimony at the trial that lead is a toxic material and its main effect on the human body is its attack on the central nervous system; it also causes nutritional disbalance which in turn causes loss of weight, lack of appetite, and constipation. The individual may suffer from irritated gums, and his teeth may become loose and require removal. There is a certain amount of lead in the system of the normal, healthy person; lead is found to a certain extent in the food one eats — fruits, vegetables and meats. Abnormal amounts of lead can enter the system if a person ingests, eats, or inhales lead in some form, or if he absorbs lead through the skin. In the case of these plaintiffs, they were exposed to fumes from burning lead paint. The lead entered their bodies through the lungs and was picked up in small quantities by the blood stream and distributed through the body; the hemoglobin in the blood carries the lead. Defendant's doctor described the lead as "toxic to everything it touches." Eventually the lead joins with or is compounded with calcium and is deposited in the bones; without outside interference it will stay there and no longer be harmful. Generally, a person suffering from lead poisoning is treated as follows: He is removed from exposure to lead; he is given abundant quantities of liquids and large doses of calcium and vitamin D, along with intravenous injections of sodium calcium versenate to hasten the process by which the lead is either deposited in the bones or is excreted. Sometimes the individual is given sedatives to relieve the pain and vitamin pills to improve the appetite. Lead poisoning is painful because of the irritation it causes to the nervous system. When the individual returns to a relatively normal level of lead content in his blood and urine he can return to normal activities.

From the evidence in the record, each of the plaintiffs was suffering from lead poisoning which revealed itself through the symptoms described above and through X rays, blood and urine tests. Each plaintiff was treated for such malady and later discharged from the hospital with a medical finding that he could return to work. Del Raso testified to having suffered from stomach cramps, weak appetite, headaches, vomiting and chest pains. He was hospitalized twice, the first time for two weeks and the second time for about one week. He was placed on a special diet, given shots, and fed intravenously. He continued to be under medical care for five months after his second release from the hospital, after which he changed doctors and was hospitalized a third time for about two weeks, and stayed under the care of this doctor for a year and a half. He complained that he still felt some of the effects of the poisoning, although he was no longer taking any medication.

Dalpiaz stated that he initially suffered from nausea and stomach pains; that everything tasted as if he were "eating paint or metal"; that after he complained to his foreman his condition continued to deteriorate; that he couldn't eat or drink, his head severely ached, he had pains in his arms, legs, chest and mouth, and his teeth all became loose and ached. He was hospitalized in February 1956, and remained away from work for 28 days; he went into the hospital again in 1957 for about a week. He testified that he was still taking some medication for his continuing nervousness and that his teeth were still sensitive to hot and cold foods. He also stated that he had gone to the hospital in 1962 because of a recurrence of the symptoms.

Benson told the court that he began suffering from nausea, stomach pains and loss of appetite in October 1955; that in the following month these disorders increased in severity and he suffered pains in his legs. He stated that in early February 1956 he went to his doctor and immediately thereafter stopped working as a burner; that he entered the hospital where he was placed under the care of defendant's doctor and remained there for about 18 days; that by the time he entered the hospital he was suffering from pains in his arms, legs and stomach, and was sweating and nauseated; his teeth were loose. He testified that after he was recovered he still had symptoms of nervousness and sweating.

Sybert testified to having had bad pains in his stomach, pains across his chest, sweats, weakness of legs, constipation, sleeplessness, and an inability to taste foods. He stated that he was hospitalized in January 1956, being given much the same treatment as the other patients; that his last blood test was in May 1956, which showed his blood to be within normal limits of lead content; that he continued to exhibit symptoms of nervousness, and that the doctor who treated him testified that this nervousness would continue to a certain degree for years. Other testimony indicated that at the time of the trial Sybert was perfectly healthy and capable of normal work; that since May of 1957 he had seen no doctors, nor had he taken any medication for the conditions relating to lead poisoning; that he lost six teeth during the time he was suffering from the poisoning; that they became so loose he "just pulled them out."

The rates of pay of the palintiffs varied from about $2.04 to $2.13 an hour. Del Raso's doctor bill was $185, and he was away from work for about two months; Sybert's doctor bill was $110, and he lost 31 days of work, including 15 days in the hospital; Dalpiaz' doctor bill was $160, and he lost 28 days of work in 1956, seven days in 1959, and several more days through the years; Benson's doctor bill was $40, and he was off work for one month.

In January of 1956 the defendant supplied the men working on the burning job a small muzzle-like mask which had a throw-away cartridge. The mask did not have an independent air supply, but was a filter. It hooked over the wearer's face, and the cartridge was to be changed two or three times a day. These masks did not prevent the wearers from breathing in lead gases, and they were still able to smell and taste the gas (paint fumes) through the masks. Although defendant had safety meetings scheduled each morning at which a foreman presided, the plaintiffs were never warned of the danger of fumes from the work they were doing.

Defendant's theory of the case is that until January 1956 it had no knowledge constructive or actual of any hazard of lead poisoning or of the presence of lead paint on the cars which were being stripped; that from the time defendant was charged with knowledge it provided the men on the burning job with masks and respirators, thereby meeting the standard of reasonable care. Defendant further maintains that the trial court erred in withdrawing the issue of contributory negligence from the jury, and that in any event, the verdicts are so excessive as to require a new trial or a substantial remittitur. In support of the argument that there was neither sufficient nor competent evidence presented at the trial to show that the defendant knew or should have known of the presence of lead paint on the cars, defendant cites Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163, and Crowley v. Elgin, J. & E. Ry. Co., 1 Ill. App.2d 481, 117 N.E.2d 843.

In Urie the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the plaintiff had stated a cause of action under the F.E.L.A., where he had become afflicted with silicosis from inhaling silicon dust which allegedly had blown into the locomotive cabin where he worked, and which allegedly was improperly guarded against inasmuch as the locomotive equipment had not been kept in a proper state of repair. The court held that plaintiff could sue on a theory of general negligence as well as on a theory of violation of a statute (the Boiler Inspection Act). The court then held that silicosis was an "injury" within the meaning of the F.E.L.A., and that the protection of the Act was not limited to injuries and death resulting from accidents; therefore, if plaintiff's silicosis was in whole or in part attributable to defendant's negligence, defendant could be held liable. The court stated:

". . . we think that negligence, within the meaning of the Federal Employers' Liability Act, attached if respondent `knew, or by the exercise of due care should have known,' that prevalent standards of conduct were inadequate to protect petitioner and similarly situated employees. [Citing cases.] Respondent's knowledge, actual or constructive, of the alleged inadequacies of the sanding equipment was a jury question. . . ."

Then, quoting from Sadowski v. Long Island R. Co., 292 N.Y. 448, 455-456, 55 N.E.2d 497, the court said:

"`Ordinary care must be in proportion to the danger to be avoided and the consequences that might reasonably be anticipated from the neglect [citing cases]. It must be commensurate with known dangers. Defendant created the place in which the work was done and supervised the doing of the work by plaintiff and was aware for a period of at least sixteen years of the conditions under which plaintiff was required to work and of the means and methods by which its work was accomplished. It is a matter of common knowledge that it is injurious to the lungs and dangerous to health to work in silica dust, a fact which defendant was bound to know.'"

Justice Frankfurter, concurring in part in the Urie case, is more blunt:

"At the risk of wearisome reiteration it is relevant to say again that the common-law concept of negligence is an antiquated and uncivilized basis for working out rights and duties for disabilities and deaths inevitably due to the conduct of modern industry. In the conscious or unconscious endeavor not to have the human cost of industry fall with cruel injustice upon workers and their families, the law of negligence gives rise to endless casuistry. So long as the gamble of an occasional heavy verdict is not replaced by the security of a modern system of insurance, courts must continue to apply the notion of negligence in situations for which it was never intended. Therefore, if a claim is made that an injury is causally related to a carrier's failure to maintain standards of care appropriate for employment on a railroad, the Federal Employers' Liability Act entitles an employee to establish that claim to a jury's satisfaction. Damages are recoverable under that Act for suffering `injury.' That term, it seems to me, is sufficiently broad to include bodily injury which nowadays is more specifically characterized as `occupational disease.' Accordingly, I agree that recovery may be had under the Federal Employers' Liability Act for silicosis, where the facts sustain such a claim, . . ."

Justice Frankfurter, however, did not think that the Boiler Inspection Act covered the injury.

The court, in addition to holding that silicosis, as an occupational disease, came under the F.E.L.A., held that although the F.E.L.A. did not define negligence, the definition of negligence was to be determined from common-law principles as they had been established and applied in the federal courts (i.e., Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, did not apply in an F.E.L.A. case).

Crowley v. Elgin, J. & E. Ry. Co., 1 Ill. App.2d 481, 117 N.E.2d 843, is a case in which an action was brought under the F.E.L.A. to recover for injuries which plaintiffs sustained from occupational contact dermatitis allegedly caused by petroleum and chromates repeatedly coming in contact with plaintiffs' skin. The court carefully discussed the nature of the injury, the work history of each of the plaintiffs, and the evidence presented at the trial. The court concluded that the jury had sufficient evidence before it to make a finding that defendant knew or should have known of the hazard to plaintiffs' health, and that in the exercise of ordinary care should have known of the danger of contact dermatitis arising from the conditions of employment. For example, the court noted the medical testimony of defendant's doctors and of the expert witnesses, of the publications in the field, and the preventive measures which defendant had taken at various times. The court cited the Urie case and others, including Baumgartner v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 292 Pa 106, 140 A 622, and Harvey v. Welch, 86 N.H. 72, 163 A 417. The Baumgartner case was quoted as follows:

". . . and the master is presumed to know the nature and qualities of the materials he places in the hands of his servants. In other words, he is presumed to have such knowledge of matters pertaining to his business as is possessed by those having special acquaintance with the subjects involved. . . . An employer is presumed to be familiar with the dangers, latent as well as patent, ordinarily accompanying the business in which he is engaged."

The Harvey case was quoted:

". . . Being under a positive duty to exercise care for the safety of his servant, he was bound to make reasonable inquiry for the purpose of informing himself of the natural consequences of using the material which he furnished [oxalic-acid]. A master `must take into account the properties of such substances as he employs for the purposes of his business and the operation of familiar physical laws upon these substances.'"

[1-4] In the instant case the record indicates that there was evidence that the defendant railroad, through its agents, had actual or constructive knowledge that there was a hazard to plaintiffs' health inasmuch as 1) defendant was given notice that there was lead paint on the 31,000 series cars; 2) the defendant was also given notice that plaintiffs were suffering from some occupational hazard connected with the burning job; 3) it is common knowledge that the fumes from burning paint often carry noxious gases which can, through constant exposure, cause illness; 4) the employer is presumed to know the nature of the materials it places in its employees' hands. Each of these will be examined, and the rule stated in Finley v. New York Cent. R. Co., 19 Ill.2d 428, 167 N.E.2d 212, applied:

"Under the Federal Employers' Liability Act a carrier is liable in damages for injury resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of its officers, agents, or employees. Assumption of risk is no longer a defense, nor does contributory negligence bar a recovery. In determining whether a verdict in plaintiff's favor is supported on the record, the sole question is whether there is any evidence, considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, that defendant was guilty of negligence which contributed in whole or in part to the injury. [Citing cases.] The United States Supreme Court has recently observed that `Under this statute the test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify with reason the conclusion that employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought. It does not matter that, from the evidence, the jury may also with reason, on grounds of probability, attribute the result to other causes, including the employee's contributory negligence. Judicial appraisal of the proofs to determine whether a jury question is presented is narrowly limited to the single inquiry whether, with reason, the conclusion may be drawn that negligence of the employer played any part at all in the injury or death.' Rogers v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Co., 352 U.S. 500, . . . ."

1) Dr. Meadows, the defendant's doctor, testified in 1964 that "the use of lead base paint was discontinued 25 years ago, or more." That is, in 1939 or sometime before 1939, lead base paint was discontinued on these cars. One might infer that if the cars had been painted sometime around 1939 or thereafter, the fact that they were lead-painted would come as a surprise to the defendant. The record shows, however, that the 31,000 series cars were purchased in 1937, and obviously were manufactured in that year or earlier. Moreover, one Kirschner, who was an industrial hygienist and "safety man" testified that "as an expert I would guess that there was a greater likelihood that railroad cars painted in 1937 had some red lead than railroad cars that were painted later." Benson testified that the employees called the orange paint on the cars "lead." The other plaintiffs corroborated this testimony. Each of the plaintiffs had seen the orange colored paint; each had called it lead paint. It is uncontradicted and uncontested that there was lead in the paint on the 31,000 series cars upon which the plaintiffs were employed. It would seem that if the foreman had merely seen the paint or talked with any of the men employed in stripping the 31,000 series he would have been put on notice of the fact that there was a great likelihood that lead paint was on those cars. Kirschner testified:

"The problem of lead hazards involved in the processing or cutting of lead painted steel by oxyacetylene torches is known not only to people who are professionally concerned with industrial health but it is known to lay people as well and to people in the industry. The exposure to an unprotected employee subject to oxyacetylene cutting is among the worst type of exposures and its hazardness is exceeded by very few other lead exposures."

2) Each of the plaintiffs testified that he had complained to a superior regarding the effects of the burning job. Each had spoken to the foreman, Koleto, and had complained that the smoke was causing illness. According to the testimony of the plaintiffs, Koleto had turned a deaf ear to their complaints and had attributed their maladies to a desire to have an inside job during the cold weather, too much to drink, old age, and gold-bricking. When they complained to the supervisor he told them there would "be no job picking; you do the job you are assigned to." Del Raso testified that once, after several of them had been laid off for taking an unauthorized break from the burning, he had asked Koleto to put him on another job, to which Koleto had replied: "No, you want to get 9 days off like you had before, but this time I'm going to get you fired." This occurred in November; in February, when the foreman again refused his request for a transfer, Dalpiaz went to the general foreman and complained, at which time the general foreman gave him a slip to go to the hospital. The defendant's general argument to all of this is that at the time of the trial Koleto was deceased and therefore not available to contradict this testimony. This fact does not nullify the testimony of the plaintiffs. The defendant did not bring in any other witnesses for the purpose of challenging the testimony of the plaintiffs; there were other supervisory personnel and fellow employees involved in the stripping process; defendant must have had some written records which set forth the activities of Koleto.

[5-7] 3) It is common knowledge that fumes from burning paint often carry noxious and toxic gases which can through constant exposure cause illness. From this it can be reasoned that since it is not necessary that the tortfeasor foresee the particular harm which befalls plaintiff, but that the tortfeasor saw or should have seen the general danger and taken precautions; therefore, the defendant in the instant case cannot maintain that because the specific hazard of lead poisoning was not foreseen, defendant was not generally failing to act with due care for the safety of the plaintiffs.

The employer is presumed to know the nature of the material it places in the employees' hands. From the testimony in the record it appears that ample notice was given to Koleto which should have caused a complete investigation.

In F.E.L.A. cases the rule is that a verdict in plaintiff's favor is supported on the record when there is any evidence considered in the light most favorable to plaintiff that defendant was guilty of negligence which contributed in whole or in part to the injury. Finley v. New York Cent. R. Co., 19 Ill.2d 428, 167 N.E.2d 212.

As the defendant points out in its brief, the question is not one of whether lead in paint is toxic and could produce injury to the human system, but whether or not the defendant can be properly charged with negligence in that it failed to take the proper precautions to use reasonable care to furnish its employees with a safe place to work. Bailey v. Central Vermont Ry., Inc., 319 ...

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