Injured Railroad Worker Awarded $1.5 Million in Damages

St. Louis Daily Record
Vol.293, No.229-95

BY EMILY UMBRIGHT
Staff Writer

A St. Louis jury awarded $1.5 million in damages on Nov. 7 to a railroad trackman that suffered injuries to his neck and spine after his dump truck rolled over.

On Nov. 1, 1999, a group of railroad workers were repairing a railroad crossing when a worker driving a truck down a country road forced a dump truck operated by Timothy Sorrell off the road. Sorrell's truck, filled with 15 pounds of asphalt, rolled off the road causing him to sustain neck and back injuries.

After receiving conservative treatment for his injuries, Sorrell underwent an anterior cervical discectomy operation and an interbody fusion to his neck.

Sorrell's employer, Norfolk Southern Railway Co., agreed to pay the medical bills resulting from the accident, which totaled an excess of $44,000. However, by the time the trial rolled around, the railroad still had not paid.

As a result of his injuries, Norfolk Southern said it could not give Sorrell his job back. Sorrell then underwent a vocational rehabilitation program provided by the railroad, but Norfolk Southern still could not provide their employee, who had been with the company for 25 years, with a job.

"Based on the test results and their evaluation of my client, they said they had nothing to offer him," attorney for Sorrell, Paul Slocomb of Schlichter Bogard & Denton, said.

Sorrell's past and future wage loss was calculated to be approximately $600,000.

In his suit, Sorrell contended the railroad was negligent by not providing a safe method of work and was responsible for the actions of the employee operating the truck that drove him off the road. Due to Norfolk Southern's negligence, which resulted in his loss of a job, Sorrell argued, the company had to pay for his medical bills, his loss in wages and his lost health insurance.

Norfolk Southern argued that because they were not responsible for Sorrell's injuries, they should not have to pay monetary damages.

"They say he can't go back to his old job; they have no new jobs to offer him, and then they turn around and say he is negligent because he failed to mitigate his damages by finding a job," Slocomb said. "They pointed out that he has all sorts of transferable skills. But I pointed out in the closing argument that those transferable skills they claim he has, the railroad certainly didn't want ... because they would have offered him a job."

Two years after the accident, the railroad terminated Sorrell's health insurance. A year later, the health insurance provided by the company to his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was also cut-off.

"It is a tremendous policy," Slocomb described. "Prescription coverage across the board; no annual premiums at all free."

To create a sense of the damages incurred as a result of Sorrell's loss of insurance, an insurance expert testified, explaining the potential cost of comparable insurance for Sorrell and his wife.

"What he found was where these people live in the state of Indiana, the four major insurance carriers refused, flat out refused, to carry them because of the pre-existing conditions," Slocomb said. "So what they were left with was kind of a last-ditch, state-run program that obviously is pretty scant on the benefits."

In addition to the lost wages and unpaid medical bills, Sorrell recovered compensation for the lost health insurance, which totaled $360,000 in premiums, including an eight percent inflation rate, until the age of 65.

"That's somewhat unique in terms of a fringe benefit and damage analysis on a FELA case," Slocomb said. "In this day and age when health insurance is on front and center of everyone's minds, I think its important that people know that this is what happens when the negligence of a railroad ends a person's career, because not only are they out of wages, but almost equally important is health insurance, especially when you have a wife who suffers from progressive multiple sclerosis."

"At some point the railroad needs to understand that they need to treat their employees better," he continued. "They need to pay their medical bills. They need to do something about health insurance coverage. Otherwise, juries are going to continue to compensate for those damages, which they should."

David Dick, attorney for Norfolk Southern Railway Co., was unavailable for comment.

"Sorrell recovered compensation for the lost health insurance, which totaled $360,000 in premiums, including an eight percent inflation rate, until the age of 65."