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California Appellate Court Revises Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against BNSF

On January 4th, 2024, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District revived a plaintiff’s wrongful death lawsuit. In the case of Garner v. BNSF Railway Co., the San Diego based court ruled that a lower court improperly granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The plaintiff, Gary Garner, brought the wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his late father—who passed away due to  non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was allegedly linked to his multi-decade employment at BNSF Railway Company. Within this article, our Stockton wrongful death attorney provides a more comprehensive overview of the decision of the court. 

Case Analysis: Garner v. BNSF Railway Co.

Background and Facts

BNSF Railway Co. is one of the largest freight railroad companies in the United States. It has more than 35,000 employees, including many in California. The plaintiff in this wrongful death case (Gary Garner) is the son of a now deceased former BNSF Railway employee named Melvin Garner. The father (Melvin) was an employee of the corporation for more than 40 years. Unfortunately, the elder Mr. Garner passed away in 2014 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that originates in the lymphatic system. He was diagnosed with cancer after he retired from the company. 

Gary Garner filed a wrongful death lawsuit against BNSF Railway after his father’s passing. The legal claim alleges that Melvin Garner’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was causally linked to the years that he was exposed to toxic levels of diesel exhaust and its chemical constituents while employed by BNSF Railway. The son retained several expert witnesses that testified that Melvin Gatner’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer could reasonably be linked to the chemical components of diesel exhaust. The company moved to exclude those expert witnesses. 

Note: Railway workers in California are often outside of the traditional workers’ compensation insurance system. Instead, these employees are generally protected by the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). In this case, the wrongful death lawsuit was filed under FELA. 

Trial Court Decision

During the trial stage of the wrongful death lawsuit, the BNSF Railway filed a motion in limine to exclude the testimony from the relevant expert witnesses. Broadly defined, a motion in limine is a legal request made to a judge before or during a trial to exclude certain evidence or testimony from being presented to the jury. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion in limine and, as such, excluded the expert testimony. 

Upon review, the trial court determined that the scientific processes that the experts used were “inadequate” and that there was “too great an analytical gap” between their opinions and the data that they relied upon. Without the testimony of these experts, the plaintiff was not able to reasonably establish causation between Mr. Garner’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the diesel fumes that he was exposed to while associated with BNSF Railway. The wrongful death lawsuit was subsequently dismissed. 

Legal Issues

The plaintiff in the wrongful death claim filed an appeal. The key issue at stake on appeal was whether or not the trial court made the appropriate decision when it granted the defendant’s motions in limine to exclude the testimony of several of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses. It is a very important matter in this wrongful death case because without that expert testimony, the plaintiff has no reasonable way to establish the causation necessary to bring a successful wrongful death lawsuit against the company under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. 

Appellate Court Decision

The California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District had to address a number of different relevant issues in this wrongful death appeal. At the outset, it had to determine the proper standard of review. The defendant argued that the abuse of discretion standard of review applied, whereas the plaintiff argued that the de novo standard of review was appropriate. The abuse of discretion standard of review is used by appellate courts to assess whether a lower court’s decision was made with a significant error in judgment, while the “de novo” standard involves a complete reevaluation of the case without giving weight to the lower court’s initial decision. As the motion in limine was granted at the outset of the case, the appellate court determined that the de novo standard applied. 

Using the de novo standard of review, the appellate court determined that the trial court did make a material error in granting the defendant’s motion to exclude the plaintiff’s expert witnesses. The appellate court emphasized that the trial court granted the motions to dismiss in large part because the expert witnesses failed to point to a “specific study” that connected non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to diesel exhaust. However, the appellate courts noted that the trial court misapplied the law. It found that “there is no requirement that a causation expert rely on a specific study or other scientific publication expressing precisely the same conclusion at which the expert has arrived.”

What Comes Next

The appellate court reversed the judgment granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss in the wrongful death case. The case is now being remanded back to the trial court with specific instructions stating that the order granting the motion in limine to exclude three of the plaintiff’s key causation expert witnesses must be vacated. Further proceedings must be conducted that are consistent with the appellate court’s ruling. In effect, this likely means that the expert witnesses will be allowed to testify. Whether or not there is liability in the wrongful death claim will depend on if the plaintiff—relying on that testimony and other evidence—can establish causation. 

Contact Our Stockton, CA Wrongful Death Attorney Today

At Redkey Gordon Law Corp, our Stockton wrongful death lawyer is a skilled, experienced, and compassionate advocate for families. If you have any questions about a wrongful death claim, we are here to help. Give us a call now or contact us online today for your no cost, no commitment initial case review. With a legal office in Stockton, we are well-positioned to advocate for the rights and interests of grieving families throughout the entire San Joaquin Valley Region.