A freight train conductor in Montana who was fired for reporting an on-the-job injury received a multimillion jury award for claims brought under three powerful laws put in place to protect railroad employees from harm and workplace retaliation. Although my railroad injury and whistleblower attorney colleagues and I are based in Virginia and primarily assist clients east of the Mississippi River, I want to highlight Wooten v. BNSF Railway Corp. because it clarifies so many things about railroad employees’ rights and the lengths rail corporations will go to deny the exercise of those rights.
- How Does the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) Protect Railroad Workers?
- A Look at Emotional Distress and Punitive Damage Awards in FRSA Cases
- Wrongfully Terminated Railroad Employees Have Protections Under FRSA
The story begins in 2016, when the conductor started a typical run from one Montana city to another. Along the way, he and his engineer pulled their train onto a siding to, in part, perform a visual inspection of another BNSF train passing on a parallel track.
The conductor heard a pop while trying to open a door with a stuck handle. He nonetheless exited the crew cab and completed his part of the inspection. When he went to climb back into the locomotive, his wrist gave way, causing him to fall onto the rail bed and suffer additional arm injuries.
His engineer called the incident into their supervisors, and the conductor went to the hospital for treatment after his train reached its destination.
The Jury Trial
The conductor’s supervisors immediately doubted the cause of his injury, accusing him of hurting his wrist the night before making the city-to-city run and then filing a false injury report. Based on this predetermined conclusion, they fired the conductor.
He subsequently filed a lawsuit under provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) and the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA). The defendant rail corporation, BNSF, offered a settlement of zero dollars, which the conductor and his lead attorney, Michael P. McReynolds of St. Paul, MN-based Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, rejected.
An 11-day federal jury trial in 2018 ended with jurors dismissing the conductor’s LIA claim but also finding that BNSF had violated its former employee’s rights under FELA and FRSA. FELA states that a rail company owes an employee medical care and other forms of compensation when the employee suffers harm due to the railroad’s negligence.
FRSA ensures that rail employees can report injuries and unsafe or illegal activities without fear of being fired, demoted, disciplined or bullied. The overwhelming majority of the jury’s award to the conductor reflected findings that BNSF retaliated against the conductor.
Upholding the Jury Award
BNSF immediately asked the federal trial judge to order a second trial to consider the “fairness” of the monetary awards to the injured and fired conductor. The judge almost as quickly issued a detailed opinion denying the second hearing and adding interest to the awards the railroad had stalled in paying.
McReynolds shared this breakdown of the amounts BNSF must now pay his client:
- FELA Damages — $13,177.50
- Future Lost Wages and Benefits — $1,407,978.00
- Emotional Distress — $500,000.00
- Prejudgment Interest on Emotional Distress Damages — $42,732.47
- Punitive Damages — $249,999.00
- Attorney Fees — $657,107.00
- Expenses — $81,713.22
- Expert Witness Fees — $233,993.70
- Taxable Costs — $23,308.94
- Total — $3,210,009.74 plus postjudgment interest)
Regarding BNSF’s objection to the emotional distress award, the judge wrote, “the Court cannot conclude that the award is grossly excessive, monstrous, clearly unsupported by the evidence, or based only on speculation or guesswork. Particularly in light of the fact that Wooten came from a ‘railroad family’ in a small ‘railroad town’ and was wrongfully terminated and decried as a liar by the railroad. Wooten testified to the emotional impact this had on him, and the Court found his testimony to be compelling.”
As of this writing, BNSF can still file a notice of appeal, but it is unclear what grounds the freight rail company would have for doing so. The trial judge trial already clearly answered each legal question BNSF chose to raise.
To quote one more instance of this, when BNSF objected that the experts called to testify for the injured conductor, “charged amounts that are unreasonable in Missoula,” the judge noted that such a concern “is belied by the fact that BNSF spared no expense retaining the best experts to present its side of this case. The Court will not unilaterally extinguish one side’s ability to fight fire with fire.”
BNSF makes billions in profit each year as its train crews and other employees risk injury on a daily basis. Laws such as FELA and FRSA equal the legal playing field.