Railroad Laborer Awarded $5.5 Million by St. Louis Jury

St. Louis Daily Record
Vol.293, No.169

BY EMILY UMBRIGHT
Staff Writer

In what could be the largest verdict in a railroad litigation suit, a St. Louis jury recently awarded a railroad laborer $5.5 million.

Despite the denials of liability, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad must pay Ralph Early, the man injured during a window-cleaning project in a Chicago railway yard on Nov. 9, 1999, for the severe afflictions to his back and legs.

A motion for a new trial is pending, according to William Brasher, attorney for the railroad company.

"In addition to the size of the verdict, there are numerous errors that occurred throughout the trial," he said. "A motion for a new trial is pending, and I anticipate that if a new trial is not granted, the case will be reversed."

Using the wooden ladder given to him by his supervisors, Early climbed eight feet into the air to clean a warehouse window in preparation for the arrival of high-ranking railroad officers who were coming to inspect the warehouse. But on his way up, the ladder broke, resulting in the rupture of Early's lumbar disc.

"The plaintiff suffered a very serious back injury resulting in back surgery," attorney Jerry Schlichter said of Early, who suffers from the chronic pain,"which required him to be on very heavy narcotics, which themselves don't fully relieve the pain. So a battery-powered stimulator was inserted in his spine to stimulate the nerves in a way such as to reduce the pains, which still doesn't alleviate the pain."

The spinal nerve stimulator, which must be changed every three years, is valued at $30,000.

Early argued the railroad was liable for his fall because it failed to provide a safe method to perform his job, which resulted in him not being able to return to work. Burlington Northern denied that it was at fault.

Regardless of the fact that the railroad was unable to provide the ladder for induction into evidence, Schlichter still pressed that the ladder collapsed due to defects and instability.

"They argue it was his fault because he didn't balance himself," Schlichter said.

"This is a ladder that the plaintiff had used on numerous other occasions," Brasher said. "He inspected it on other occasions ... inspected it earlier that day and used it without incident and never reported that there was anything wrong with it in any way, shape or form."

Early's argument was strengthened by his testimony and records obtained through a court order depicting the company had ordered, the day after Early's injury, a long-armed cleaning tool that could be operated from the ground, according to Schlichter.

"The company denied that it had anything to do with the accident, but we said it did," he said. "Our argument was that he didn't even need to be on a ladder, and if he was, it shouldn't be defective, and it shouldn't have collapsed."

"There was no evidence and is no evidence that there was anything defective with the ladder that he claims collapsed on him, causing him to fall," Brasher said.

"This man was deprived of his health and ability to earn a living because the railroad didn't care about safety," Roger Denton, additional counsel to Early, said in a statement. "The jury was able to see through the railroad's denial of liability and reached the correct result."

"It makes me extremely happy that the jury understood that the railroad did not treat me fairly," Early added in a statement.

Winning the case was essential to Early, who was not only faced with high medical bills and couldn't return to work but also because as a railroad worker, he is not covered under workers' compensation laws. Instead, the Federal Employers' Liability Act, enacted in 1906 and re-worked in 1908, protects railroad workers. Created at a time when there were many more railroad workers and many more accidental instances, it requires that the employee prove fault on part of the employer.

"It's not an automatic recovery," Schlichter said. "If there's no fault proven, there's no recovery even if a person's injured. Certainly railroad workers would tell you, there's a greater reluctance to report injuries out of fear of discipline for doing so."

Regardless of the outcome of the case, Early will receive medical benefits through the railroad. Much of Early's $5.5 million will go toward his alleged $1.1 million in future wage losses and $1.5 million in future medical expenses, Brasher said.

"This case shows that the jury realized the man was very seriously injured and that the railroad was at fault for causing his injuries," Schlichter said. "We feel that justice was served."

"Despite the denials of liability, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad must pay Ralph Early, the man injured during a window-cleaning project in a Chicago railway yard on Nov. 9, 1999, for the severe afflictions to his back and legs."