Federal court upholds ruling in favor of injured former BNSF employee

A photograph of a train traveling through a desert field. There is a mountain range in the distance behind the train.

A federal appeals court upheld a verdict allowing a former BNSF employee to be compensated $3.1 million for an unlawful termination and workplace-related injuries.

In a June 22 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld an April 2019 ruling that enabled former BNSF conductor Zachary Wooten to receive compensatory damages, lost wages, punitive damages and front pay from BNSF (NYSE: BRK). The total compensation equaled about $3.1 million, according to court documents and a Monday article in the Flathead Beacon.

Wooten had claimed that BNSF terminated him in September 2015 after he sustained work-related injuries. Wooten argued that BNSF’s action violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA), the Federal Employers’ Liability Act and the Locomotive Inspection Act. 

After an 11-day jury trial in October and November 2018, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Wooten on the claims pertaining to the FRSA and the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, but in favor of BNSF with regard to the Locomotive Inspection Act. 

BNSF appealed the verdict and sought a new jury trial. But in the April 2019 ruling, Judge Dana L. Christensen with the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana denied BNSF’s request. 

“Wooten acquired at BNSF a specific set of skills that were related only to the transportation industry. After being dismissed in violation of the FRSA, Wooten was faced with an essentially non-existent job market for comparable paying jobs …,” the appeals court said on June 22.

It continued: “In the vast majority of cases, a plaintiff will be able to find a comparable job within a few years, and for that reason, only a few years of front pay will be sufficient to bridge the gap in earnings. But this is not a typical situation. The district court’s findings supporting the front pay award were not clearly erroneous, and the award was not an abuse of discretion.”

BNSF told FreightWaves it is reviewing the court’s decision.

Because the previous rulings were upheld, Wooten received a total of $3.1 million through what the trial jury offered him in November 2018 and through BNSF’s subsequent appeal in April 2019.

In November 2018, the jury awarded Wooten $13,177.50 in lost wages and benefits, $1,407,978 in future lost wages and benefits, $500,000 for emotional distress, and $249,999 in punitive damages. Then when Christensen’s court in April 2019 rejected BNSF’s request for a new trial, Wooten received $42,732.47 in prejudgment interest stemming from the jury’s emotional distress award of $500,000, $657,107 for attorneys’ fees, $81,713.22 for expenses and $233,993.70 in expert witness fees.

Wooten had worked as a conductor in the Whitefish rail yard and sustained disabling injuries to his right wrist and arm while he was conducting a roll by, or a visual inspection of another train, according to the Flathead Beacon article, which drew on court documents. Wooten claimed he was dismissed because he refused to file an injury report saying that he had injured his wrist before appearing for work.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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