The jury said the railroad failed to provide Ronald Puckett with a safe work environment. The judgment is one of the largest awards ever handed down by a U.S. jury for a non-paralyzing injury.
"Railroad workers deserve safe working conditions, and the size of this award indicates that the jury agrees with that premise," said Puckett's attorney, R. Edward Pfiester of the Pfiester Law Corp., Los Angeles. He pointed out that Puckett was only 32 years old at the time of the incident, which caused serious injuries that left him disabled and unable to work and support his wife and six children.
A spokeswoman for BNSF had no comment on the case.
Puckett, a six-year BNSF employee and locomotive engineer, reported to duty at the Richmond rail yard in the San Francisco area on the morning of June 13, 2000. At approximately 10 a.m., he was operating a BNSF locomotive that was "shoving" (pushing ahead of it) a group of railroad cars, commonly called a "cut," to connect them with another group of cars ahead. Puckett was part of a three-man crew headed up by the yard foreman, an experienced switchman named J.A. Johnson.
Johnson was directing Puckett via portable radio, a method that is standard in such operations because the view of the engineer - in this case, Puckett - is blocked by the rail cars the locomotive is pushing. The engineer never moves the locomotive without being directed to do so by another crew member - in this case, Johnson - whom he relies on to be his eyes and ears. Long-standing BNSF safety rules also required Johnson either to ride the lead car that was being pushed by the locomotive or to walk alongside it in order to direct the locomotive engineer's actions precisely.
According to testimony at the trial, Johnson did not abide by these safety rules. Instead, he stood near the switch, attempting to look ahead and guess where the head car was moving. Johnson misjudged the distance between the cars and misdirected Puckett.
As a direct result, Puckett's train collided with the parked railcars, causing a violent jolt as the moving train came to a sudden stop. Puckett was hurled out of his seat, and his body was slammed against the metal console, then back onto his buttocks on the steel floor. He suffered serious injuries to his lower back, shoulder, head, neck and left knee.
In February 2001, Puckett underwent a lumbar fusion with titanium metal cages using bone harvested from his hip bone. A year later, an orthopedic surgeon replaced the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee with that of a cadaver. All of his injuries except the lumbar spine and left knee have healed since the crash, Puckett's doctors have precluded him from any repetitive squatting, bending, twisting or walking on uneven ground. They also have limited him to lifting or carrying no more than 10 pounds.
Nearly two years after the crash and less than a month before the scheduled trial date, BNSF offered Puckett a different position with the company, one that his doctors say he is unable to perform according to the job's description. BNSF offered dubious assurances that third parties would perform the required physical activities that he cannot meet because of injuries suffered in the crash.
Pfiester filed suit against BNSF under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), which is the injured railroad employee's sole remedy for an on-duty injury. Railroad employees are not covered by state workers' compensation laws.
Under FELA, a railroad has "a nondelegable duty to provide its employees with a reasonably safe work place." FELA also directs that if the railroad's negligence played any part, even the slightest, in injuring the employee, then the employee can recover full damages, including past and future medical expenses, past and future loss of earnings, and past and future general damages for physical pain and mental anguish.
"The incident occurred in plain sight of upper BNSF management, yet they did not oversee their operation adequately to prevent an incident that robbed Ronald Puckett of his ability to be employed gainfully for the remaining 30-plus years of his working life," said Pfiester.