In Wicker v. Consol. Rail Corp., 142 F.3d 690 (3d Cir. 1998), the Court addressed whether Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA") actions filed by five former railroad employees for exposure to toxic chemicals were barred because the employees had previously executed general releases in settlement of FELA claims that were unrelated to the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. Wicker, supra, 142 F.3d at 690-702.
Three of the five former employees had previously settled FELA claims regarding work-related back injuries, while the other two employees settled FELA claims related to occupational exposure to asbestos. Id. at 692-4.
While the language of the releases signed by each employee differed slightly, each of the releases was worded as a general release that purported to release the defendant-railroad from every employment-related claim that the employees could potentially assert, both past and future. Id. at 693-4.
The Third Circuit concluded that it would be improper for the releases executed by the Wicker plaintiffs in settlement of FELA claims for asbestos exposure or back injury to preclude their future claims for unrelated injuries related to occupational exposure to toxic chemicals. Id. at 701-2.
The Court held that:
A release does not violate Section 5 provided it is executed for valid consideration as part of a settlement, and the scope of the release is limited to those risks which are known to the parties at the time the release is signed. Claims relating to unknown risks do not constitute "controversies," and may not be waived under Section 5 of the FELA. For this reason, a release that spells out the quantity, location and duration of potential risks to which the employee has been exposed--for example toxic exposure--allowing the employee to make a reasoned decision whether to release the employer from liability for future injuries of specifically known risks does not violate Section 5 of the FELA. Id. at 701.
In Wicker, the Third Circuit concluded that the releases signed by the plaintiffs were invalid under Section 5 of the FELA for two main reasons. Id.
First, the Third Circuit concluded that the Wicker plaintiffs were unaware of the scope of the claims they were waiving when they executed their releases. Id.
Second, the language of the releases was so generic that the employees could not have known of the actual risks to which they were exposed and from which they were releasing their employer. Id.