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Blackwell v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

October 29, 2014

JAMES F. BLACKWELL
v.
CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC.

Kehoe, Berger, Nazarian, JJ. [*]

OPINION

Berger, J.

This appeal arises out of an order of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City granting appellee, CSX Transportation, Inc. ("CSX"), summary judgment against appellant, James F. Blackwell ("Blackwell"). Blackwell contends that the circuit court improperly concluded that his current claim is barred by a release he executed with CSX in settlement of a prior claim arising under the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA").

On appeal, Blackwell presents one issue[1] for our review, which we rephrase as follows:

Whether the circuit court erred in granting CSX's motion for summary judgment.

For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND I. The Prior Lawsuit

In 2007, Blackwell sued CSX pursuant to Section 1 of the FELA, 45 U.S.C. § 51, which provides a statutory cause of action for railroad employees who suffer workplace injuries as the result of the negligence of the railroad. Blackwell's 2007 complaint alleged that he developed "repetitive stress disorders" to his "knees and surrounding body structures" while employed by CSX. His 2007 complaint attributed this injury to Blackwell's "repeated walking on improper ballast [rocks] along the railroad tracks, " as well as other job-related activities that Blackwell performed during the course of his employment with CSX.

In 2009, Blackwell and CSX settled Blackwell's 2007 FELA claim. As part of the settlement agreement, Blackwell received an undisclosed settlement amount from CSX. As consideration for the payment he received, Blackwell executed a litigation release ("the 2009 Release") which provided that he "intend[ed] to release and forever discharge" CSX from any liability arising from claims that he was exposed to "repetitive stress and cumulative trauma [that] allegedly caused [him] to suffer knee injuries and other injuries, disorders, or diseases of the lower extremities." Additionally, the 2009 Release expressly provided that "a substantial portion of the consideration paid for" the settlement and release of Blackwell's claims "is for the possibility of . . . the development of any new or additional repetitive stress or cumulative trauma injury either presently existing or that may arise in the future to the lower extremities or other body parts."

Prior to executing the 2009 Release with CSX, Blackwell had an opportunity to consult with his attorney, P. Matthew Darby, Esquire. In signing the 2009 Release, Blackwell declared that he did so "upon the advice and consultation of his[] counsel, [Mr.] Darby, " and that he had "adequate time to review" the 2009 Release. When executing the 2009 Release, Blackwell initialed each page indicating that he had reviewed and understood that page's contents. Mr. Darby also signed the 2009 Release, certifying that he had "explained to [Blackwell] the legal consequences of the execution and delivery" of the release.

II. The Instant Lawsuit

In 2013, Blackwell filed another lawsuit against CSX pursuant to Section 1 of the FELA. Blackwell's 2013 complaint alleged that he "developed repetitive trauma related disorders, including injuries to his feet and surrounding body structures (bilateral plantar fasciitis), as a result of his job duties which would repeatedly require him to work and walk on uneven surfaces, including large mainline ballast."

CSX moved for summary judgment on the ground that the 2009 Release barred Blackwell's 2013 claim. In opposition to CSX's motion for summary judgment, Blackwell asserted that the 2009 Release was invalid under Section 5 of the FELA, 45 U.S.C. § 55, which voids any contract or other device used by a common carrier to exempt itself from liability under the FELA. Blackwell argued that under the "known claim" approach[2], the 2009 Release did not bar his 2013 claim because, at the time the 2009 Release was executed, he was unaware of any existing injuries to his feet. Blackwell also argued, in the alternative, that under the "known risk" approach[3], the 2009 Release did not bar his 2013 claim because, at the time the 2009 Release was executed, he was unaware of any risk of potential injury to his feet that could be attributed to his past occupational exposure to repetitive stress.

The circuit court granted CSX's motion for summary judgment. The circuit court concluded that "the plain and unambiguous language of" the 2009 Release "clearly states that it covers, 'injury that may arise to the lower extremities[, '] which includes the feet." Therefore, the circuit court entered judgment in favor of CSX because Blackwell's 2013 claim for an injury to his feet was precluded by the 2009 Release he had executed with CSX. This timely appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

I. Standard of Review

The entry of summary judgment is governed by Maryland Rule ...


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