A veteran locomotive engineer who got fired twice after going to federal regulators with concerns over his employer’s failure to fix track safety problems has won a whistleblower lawsuit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. A federal jury in Tacoma, Washington (WA), on May 27, 2015, order BNSF to pay the wrongfully terminated worker $1.25 million in lost future wages, civil damages and punitive damages.
The suit was brought under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA), which protects rail employees from getting reassigned, demoted, denied advancement or fired when they raise concerns over unsafe working conditions. The engineer who took BNSF to court was serving as a safety officer for the company and as a union representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen at the time of his firings. In other words, as the jurors found, doing his job got him in trouble with supervisors.
During 2011, the engineer repeatedly alerted BNSF managers to malfunctioning track signals and vegetation blocking signals. When the company took no action to solve those problems, the engineer filed reports with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). After a detailed inspection, FRA officials asked BNSF to address no fewer than 350 problems with traffic control devices and right-of-way overgrowth.
After hearing from the FRA, the engineer’s supervisors staged a physical confrontation with him on company property and accused him of misrepresenting the facts of a drunk driving conviction from several years previously. The supervisors then used both incidents as pretexts for terminating the engineer.
At trial, jurors hearing the whistleblower case determined that BNSF managers and supervisors acted inappropriately and retaliated illegally the engineer. The full details of how the rail corporation violated the former worker’s FRSA rights can be read in the original complaint, Elliott v. BNSF.
As a Virginia-based attorney who has spent more than 30 years representing railroad employees injured on the job and mistreated by rail companies, I recognize the significance of this victory. Railroads from Amtrak and BNSF to CSX and Norfolk Southern often ignore safety concerns. When the corporations do pay attention to reports of dangers on trains, along tracks and in rail yards, they often attack the messengers. Every railroad employee deserves respect and a safe workplace. Companies that provide neither must be held to account.