Our railroad injury client was moving a train when several cars derailed. The shockwave knocked him off balance, and he struck his head and shoulder on the metal corner of a panel.
While the train crew member did not report any disabling pain immediately following the derailment, he did apparently lose consciousness. His co-workers recalled him being dazed, and he was never able to fully recall most of the details of his fall and injury.
Our client went to the hospital for emergency treatment, but ER doctors found no major trauma and released him to return to work. Severe headaches started occurring several weeks later, and pain radiated down his right arm and into his fingers. Repeated epidural injections into his neck failed to relieve these symptoms.
A neurologist eventually diagnosed our client with myelomalacia and a syrinx. People who develop a syrinx have a fluid-filled sac form near their spinal cord. Left untreated, a syrinx can impinge on the spinal cord and weaken it, progressing to the degenerative condition of myelomalacia, which is marked by worsening pain, weakness and stiffness in the neck, arms and legs.
The neurologist ruled out immediate surgery but did place the railroad employee under strict physical limitations. Out of concern for causing further damage to his spinal cord, our client was prohibited from lifting more than 50 pounds or risking falls and collisions. These restrictions made it impossible to serve on a train crew, so our client had to accept a light-duty position at a much lower salary.
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Our Virginia railroad client filed claims for his partial disability and loss of lifetime earnings under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act, or FELA. The railroad contested the claims, arguing that no proof existed to show that the former train crew member developed his syrinx as a result of his fall during the derailment.
An interview with the man’s neurologist revealed that spinal fluid often leaks and collects near the spinal cord very slowly following a neck injury. The medical specialist also explained that small fluid-filled sacs can be easy to miss on MRIs until they grow to a certain size. Our client went a year between his post-derailment visit to the ER and his diagnosis by the neurologist.
We cannot reveal other details about our legal approach due to confidentially conditions requested by the railroad, but we did finally convince the company to negotiate a settlement six weeks before a jury trial was scheduled to start. In the end, our Virginia railroad injury client received $190,000.
This case illustrates how collecting and preventing incontrovertible medical evidence is essential to succeeding with a FELA claim. It also demonstrates how an injured rail employee should not accept no for an answer when his or her employer simply tries to argue that such proof does not exist.
Date: May 2013
Staff: Richard N. Shapiro, staff attorney