Partial Disability and Forced Retirement From Herniated Disc Merits $309,000 FELA Settlement for Former Track Worker | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

What Happened

Our railroad injury law firm client was working for a major interstate freight rail company when he injured his lower back while lifting equipment. He worked through his shift and only began feeling serious pain while at home that evening.

The track worker eventually visited his family physician and was diagnosed with a herniated lumbar disc. This led him to file an injury report with his supervisor and to request light duty.

Despite the accommodation, our railroad injury client found that his back pain prevented him from completing tasks. He had serious difficulty lifting any object, and his doctor ordered him to take leave.

Referred for surgery, the injured track worker spent months waiting for his health insurance company to approve a procedure. The problem was that the first surgeon he consulted wanted to implant an artificial spinal disc. A more-traditional surgical repair failed to relieve the man’s pain, and he had to undergo a second surgery to have more bone cut away from the nerve root.

Even after two surgeries and extensive physical therapy, the track worker was only cleared to return to his job with the restriction of lifting no more than 20 pounds. The freight rail company determined that this limitation disqualified the man from his previous position, and he ended his career with the railroad. He was just 25 years old.


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Key Legal Strategy

The former track worker hired our railroad injury law firm to help him pursue disability and lost wages claims under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act. Usually shortened to FELA, the law requires railroads to compensate employees who suffer on-the-job injuries when managers or supervisors neglect to provide safe working conditions or fail to enforce safe practices.

For this case, we focused on the lack of ergonomic lifting procedures. We knew from handling earlier FELA claims that all major freight railroads had instituted ergonomics programs at least 15 years before our current client suffered his lower back injury while lifting track equipment.

A report prepared by an ergonomics expert confirmed that our client’s managers did not enforce rules requiring ergonomic lifting. This proof of negligence helped convince the railroad’s lawyers to propose mediation as an alternative to a civil jury trial that the company feared it might lose.

We agreed to keep the case out of court. To determine what would constitute a fair settlement for the injured track worker’s months of lower back pain, two surgeries and abruptly ended railroad career, we hired an economist.

The financial expert calculated that our client could have earned as much as $2.5 million if he had continued working for the railroad until the age of 65. He was not, however, completely disabled and unable to take other positions that required no heavy lifting. Looking at his potential earnings from the job for which he was then training, we went into the mediation session with a lost-earnings estimate of $1.2 million.

We also supported our client’s claims with depositions from his former co-workers and manager, and we submitted additional expert reports. The railroad countered that it could still contest liability at trial based on our client’s failure to immediately report his lower back injury and on the existence of an ongoing debate over what constituted best lifting practices.

The case ended with the injured track worker accepting a settlement of $309,000. He felt this was fair, and he welcomed the opportunity to skip a jury trial that might drag on for several years.

Railroad employees who get injured on the job are not eligible to receive workers’ compensation. Pursuing a FELA claim is often more complicated, and a case has a fair chance of winding up in federal court. As Virginia-based attorneys with decades of experience handling FELA cases, we were pleased to help this injured track worker hold his former employer accountable for failing to protect him from a partially disabling lifting accident.

Staff: Staff attorney