After learning and blogging about a landmark civil jury award to a wrongfully terminated Metro-North commuter railroad employee in Connecticut (CT), I contacted plaintiff's attorney Charles Goetsch to discuss why and how he helped his client receive the record whistleblower verdict. Our e-mailed Q&A regarding the case in which trackman Andy Barati won $1 million in punitive damages from his employer follows.
During the March 2012 trial, Goetsch presented documentary evidence and expert testimony showing that the rail company failed to train Barati how to properly operate the pneumatic jack that dropped a railroad tie on his toe and broke it. Goetsch also had Barati's supervisor on record as saying that even though Barati was inadequately trained and made to work in unsafe conditions, he deserved to be fired for not adhering to safety policies and practices of which he was never made aware.
Jurors ruled in Barati's favor while considering his claim of illegal workplace retaliation under provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, or FRSA, that prohibit rail corporations from firing or suspending employees who report unsafe conditions or seek treatment for on-the-job injuries.
Richard Shapiro: How typical is the fact pattern in the Barati case?
Charlie Goetsch: It's is a classic example of railroad retaliation against a worker who reports an injury. Instead of investigating and correcting the root causes of an injury, rail managers just single out the injured worker for discipline, thus perpetuating the underlying safety hazards that caused the injury. The director of the Metro-North track department did not bother to investigate how Barati’s training and supervision caused the injury. If he had, he would have discovered the railroad trained Barati contrary to the railroad’s own safety rule for how to lower jacks and that Barati’s supervisor failed to provide adequate lighting and instruction at the scene. But the director of track simply ignored the culpability of the training department and the track department supervisors, and only disciplined Barati. Such discriminatory treatment of an injured worker is a violation of the FRSA.
RS: Why did you decide to put this case before a jury?
CG: I wanted to know how a jury of regular people off the street reacts to the railroad culture of retaliation. Those of us who have spent decades in the rail industry tend to take that culture for granted. But non-railroad people would be exposed to it for the first time at trial, and I wanted to see their reaction as kind of a reality check for all of us.
RS: Why did the jury award so much in punitive damages?
CG: I cast the entire trial in a light that exposed the hypocrisy of the railroad’s safety culture. I was able to show how singling out an injured worker for discipline while ignoring all the managers responsible for the root cause of the injury is actually profoundly unsafe. By discouraging employees from reporting injuries, it undercuts the FRA’s [Federal Railroad Administration] ability to promote rail safety and, thus, needlessly exposes everyone in the community to an increased risk of injury. The jury reacted by sending a million-dollar message to railroads nationwide that such misconduct will not be tolerated.
RS: What is the take-away lesson from this first FRSA jury verdict?
CG: The take-away is that juries hate railroads who single out injured workers for discipline while letting the managers responsible for the injury go scot-free. And that juries will award a maximum amount of punitive damages for such behavior in order to send a message that it has to stop. For the first time, the public, whose safety is at stake, is holding rail managers accountable for retaliating against employees. As such, the FRSA is a game-changing statute that is forcing a transfer of power from management to rail labor. Charlie's law firm hosts a great blog on the Federal Rail Safety Act and whistleblower law affecting railroads.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.