Injured Switchman Receives Favorable Jury Verdict
BY EMILY UMBRIGHT
"It's kind of like a tug of war, the other side lets go unexpectedly so you fall backwards," described Richard Zalasky, an attorney for an injured railroad switchman who recently received a $1.6 million award from a St. Louis jury.
William "Bubba" Roberts of Pine Bluff, Ark., an employee of Union Pacific Railroad, sustained injuries to his neck and shoulders after a faulty pin lifter broke on Aug. 27, 2000, as he attempted to separate two railroad cars.
Standing on a locomotive and pulling on the pin lifter, Roberts flew backwards into the rail of the train after the device broke.
Under the Federal Employer's Liability Act of 1908, or FELA, which governs railroad workers' rights to collect damages from their employers, Roberts had to prove his injuries resulted from the railroad's negligence.
"They admitted that they provided defective equipment," Zalasky said.
However, Union Pacific argued that something other than the pin lifter incident caused Roberts' C-56 herniated disk ailment, upon which he underwent surgery.
"The railroad was challenging that diagnosis and the cause of it," Zalasky said. "In addition, they also challenged what this guy could have earned had he stayed on the railroad and what he can presently earn. So they were really attacking medical causation and damages."
At trial, the railroad company presented surveillance tapes showing Roberts could perform metal welding techniques. Zalasky admitted that Roberts did indeed own a small construction business, which fabricated metal buildings.
"They had quite a bit of videotape of him doing that," he said. "So I think it did play a part in what the jury gave him because the damages sought were greater than that although it certainly is a nice verdict."
Despite the railroads conflicting evidence, Zalasky said he was pleased with the outcome of the case.
"We demonstrated through convincing evidence in this case that the railroad knew its duty and failed to do it, causing Bubba's injuries," Zalasky said. "The jury agreed and rejected the railroad's position."
Union Pacific Railroad employs 47,000 people and services more than 33,000 miles of track in the Midwest and Western United States, including St. Louis, where the company has a major yard and a headquarters building.
In addition to doing much of its business in the city, Zaiasky said the case was tried in St. Louis because Roberts received his medical treatment in the area.
"Under FELA, the federal law that governs these claims, there's a very liberal venue statute," he explained.
Zalasky is an attorney with the law firm of Schlichter Bogard & Denton.