Jury finds in favor of injured railroad employee

Missouri Lawyers Weekly
Verdicts & Settlements
by Melissa Meinzer

A St. Louis County jury awarded a former railroad worker $725,000 under the Federal Employers Liability Act for a spinal injury he suffered on the job.

Union Pacific Railroad, the jury found, was responsible for the 2008 rail yard accident in which Scott Rhoden was injured when his foot slipped off the accelerator pedal while he was driving a company-owned utility vehicle. Union Pacific, Rhoden claimed in his suit, was negligent in maintaining the vehicle, which did not have a nonslip surface on the accelerator or a properly maintained seat cushion, which left a metal bar exposed that hit his back during the accident.

The accident happened in 2008 in Little Rock, Ark., said Nelson G. Wolff, of Schlichter, Bogard and Denton, who represented Rhoden. Under current FELA venue laws, the cases are tried where the railroad's registered agent is, which in this case is St. Louis County.

"He has what's been described as a failed-back syndrome," Wolff said of Rhoden, who testified at trial.

Rhoden was diagnosed with a herniated disc five months after the accident. After three years of conservative medical pain management, Rhoden had surgery in 2011 and in 2012, and he has not gotten relief from his pain. So, Wolff said, he's considering spinal cord stimulation or a morphine pump.

Rhoden backed the vehicle, a Kawasaki Mule, into a railcar when his foot slipped. Wolff said it seemed like a minor injury at the time, with some bruising that faded after a few days. He initially didn't miss any work, which Wolff said the defense seized on.

"The railroad challenged the nature and extent of the injury," Wolff said. "They claimed he had healed and recovered from a very mild lumbar strain and the other symptoms were related to degenerative disc disease that spontaneously erupted." But the medical experts called by both sides, Wolff said, testified that different people can have different reactions to trauma. Additionally, Wolff said, Rhoden is unable to return to the railroad for light duty because he is medicated for pain.

Wolff said the railroad's final settlement offer was $260,000, and the plaintiff's final demand was for $650,000. Rhoden had out-of-pocket medical expenses of only about $2,000 thanks to his insurance. Rhoden had been making about $55,000 a year, Wolff said.

The plaintiff asked the jury to consider the loss of his career, his insurance coverage and his pain, suffering and disability in their deliberations. After about four hours, the jury reached a 9-to-3 verdict.

The verdict, as well as a $6.4 medical malpractice verdict from July 5 and other recent high awards, Wolff said, "dispels the notion that St. Louis County juries can't provide significant compensation."

Defense attorney William D. Hakes, of Thompson Coburn in St. Louis, did not return a call for Comment on the case.

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