The family of a Union Pacific carman who died from surgical complications after severely breaking his leg in a workplace accident has won an appeal to hold the railroad accountable for failing to fix a longstanding safety risk at one of its rail yards.
The man’s widow filed a wrongful death claim under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, or FELA, shortly after he experienced a fatal brain hemorrhage caused by overtreatment with anticlotting drugs in a hospital. The treatment was required because he needed multiple surgeries after falling from a rail car while performing maintenance.
This is an interesting aspect of the case. Medical complications, and even malpractice, occurring following an accident rarely remove any due liability from an entity whose negligence created the injury being treated. The principle that the party that caused the initial harm has the responsibility for making compensation is well-established in most states and under common-law interpretations of negligence.
Evidence presented at both the initial trial and during a federal appeals court hearing established that that the rail car shifted unexpectedly while parked over a muddy and uneven patch of ground in a Houston yard. Union Pacific had apparently known about drainage problems at the site for years but did nothing to resolve the issue. According to Business Insurance, the railroad corporation tried to deflect blame onto worker. The company argued that he put himself at unnecessary risk for injury by taking a “prohibited shortcut” through muddy ground before climbing onto the car. No mud was found on the car or the man’s shoes, however.
The family had received an initial jury award of $1.19 million, and the three-judge panel that heard the appeal upheld that verdict.
Having represented dozens of railroad engineers, brakemen, conductors and other rail company employees who got hurt, sickened and killed on the job, I am rarely shocked by the lengths to which railroads will go to deny their liability for putting their workers’ health and lives in danger. Arguing for years that muddy shoes led to this carman’s fall despite having no physical evidence for the claim strikes me as a new low, however.
Congress enacted FELA more than a century ago precisely because railroads refused to protect employees, and state courts proved ineffective for holding the companies accountable. As a Virginia and Carolina personal injury and wrongful death attorney who specializes in such lawsuits, I know that cases like this one against Union Pacific prove that the law is still badly — and unfortunately — needed to keep companies such as UP, Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern honest.
I also know that no amount of money can ever truly compensate the deceased carman’s family for their loss, but they should be able to take some comfort in knowing that the rail corporation was not allowed to get away with maintaining an unsafe work site.