While working as a railroad brakeman/conductor in the southeastern United States, our client suffered a career-ending back injury after stepping into a depression in the gravel that formed the rail bed. He was performing a physical and visual inspection of the air brakes on his milelong train when he lost his footing and seriously injured his lower back.
Stepping into the unseen low spot of what railroaders call ballast caused our client to twist violently. He instantly damaged the muscles, nerves and vertebrae of his lower back and fell to the ground. A local rescue squad had to transport him from the scene to a hospital because he could not stand or walk.
The on-the-job accident happened in April 2003. After temporary and permanently implanted spinal cord stimulators failed to provide relief, our client underwent a multilevel spinal fusion in June 2005. That major surgery caused a fracture to one of his vertebra, and he needed a second repair procedure.
Doctors than ruled that our client was totally disabled and physically unable to accept any gainful employment. He was 37 years old at that time and had to leave a five-year railroading career before he qualified for any meaningful retirement or disability benefits.
Key Legal Strategy
Succeeding with an injury claim brought under the Federal Employers Liability Act, or FELA, requires showing that a railroad acted negligently. In the context of this case, we needed to determine whether anything the railroad did or failed to do led to the existence of the uneven surface along the ballast that formed the rail bed.
The lead attorney on the case studied the accident scene and hired a hydrogeologist to assess water flow through the area. Our firm also consulted with a railroad track structure expert who had extensive railroading experience.
When the railroad track expert examined the location where our client stepped into the depression, he noticed that small pieces of wooden ties were mixed in with the ballast rock. This led him to conclude that the track had been constructed improperly, allowing small gaps to open between the rails and ties and the rail bed.
Presented with this report, the railroad company claimed that it was not “aware” of any problem at this area. During a deposition, however, a railroad company representative confirmed that wooden ties deteriorate over time and freeze during the winter, which would explain the gaps identified by the track expert. The company representative also acknowledged that leaving such gaps unfilled constituted improper track construction.
That admission sealed our argument that the railroad had liability. FELA standards require only that a railroad or its officials should know that a risk to workers’ safety exists. Failing to remove or mitigate a predictable danger constitutes negligence, and being negligent meant the company owed our client.
To support our client’s claims for compensation and damages, we produced an economic report showing that his permanent disability would cost him more than $1 million dollars in lost wages over his lifetime. We also asked a nurse specialist to prepare a life care plan for our client that included estimated medical expenses he would need to pay without having the type of health insurance awarded to most railroad retirees.
When court-ordered mediation proved unsuccessful during August 2005, our FELA law firm pushed forward with a lawsuit. The railroad then agreed in October 2005 to a negotiated pretrial settlement for $900,000.
Our Virginia-based personal injury and wrongful death law firm takes a special interest in helping railroad workers who suffer back and neck injuries on the job. You can learn more about the services we offer by clicking here.
Date: October 2005
Staff: Richard N. Shapiro, attorney