Here are two recent federal court decisions affirming the amount of punitive damages awarded by the Administrative Review Board and by a district court jury.
In Jason Raye v. Pan Am Railways, the Administrative Law Judge awarded the statutory maximum of $250,000 in punitive damages despite the fact Jason Raye was not actually disciplined and lost no wages. The Administrative Review Board affirmed that decision, explaining that the employer’s misconduct need not be egregious or outrageous, only that it be in “reckless or callous disregard” of the employee’s rights.
The Railroad appealed to the Circuit Court, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ, holding: “we conclude that the ALJ’s decision to award punitive damages of $250,000, to punish and deter what he perceived to be a culture of intimidating employees and discouraging them from engaging in protected activity, was within the realm of his discretion.”
The Circuit noted FRSA “punitive damages are warranted if a railroad:
- acted with malice or ill will, or
- with knowledge that its actions violated federal law, or
- with reckless disregard or callous indifference to the risk that its actions violated federal law
As for the amount of the punitive damages, the Circuit Court confirmed the “ALJ was entitled, within wide limits, to decide how much weight to afford to each of the relevant facts, to assess the credibility of the witnesses, and to make the fact-sensitive and discretionary moral judgments” required.
In Timothy Dendy and Jason Polk v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., a federal court jury awarded each plaintiff $711.43 in back pay and $125,000 in punitive damages. Amtrak asked the district judge to set aside the jury’s punitive damage awards, arguing there was no evidence of Amtrak’s recklessness or callous indifference to the plaintiffs’ FRSA whistleblower protection rights.
The district judge rejected Amtrak’s argument, noting direct evidence a railroad knew it was violating an employee’s FRSA rights is not required. Rather, it is sufficient to produce circumstantial evidence of the railroad’s “knowledge that it may be acting in violation of federal law.” And it is the role of the jurors to issue a moral judgment on the railroad’s conduct via their punitive damages award:
Ultimately, an award of punitive damages is a discretionary moral judgment that the defendant has engaged in conduct that is so reprehensible that it warrants punishment. The Court will not second-guess the jury’s judgment.