Q: What is the quickest way for a railroad to end up with a punitive damages Order against it?

A: Refuse to cooperate with an OSHA Federal Railroad Safety Act investigation.

Some railroads have decided to play cute with OSHA by refusing to produce documents on the ground that the FRSA does not give OSHA subpoena power. Sure, OSHA may lack explicit subpoena power under the FRSA, but railroads who think they can refuse to provide OSHA with documents as a result better think again. Why? Because OSHA has the ultimate power of "drawing an adverse inference."

Case in point. Metro-North Railroad has a dozen FRSA complaints against it. When OSHA met with the representatives of all the unions on Metro North, they told OSHA that virtually all employees who report an injury to Metro-North are subjected to some form of discipline. If true, this would indicate a systemic violation of the FRSA, with punitive damage implications.

So naturally OSHA wanted to investigate. OSHA sent a letter to Metro-North Deputy General Counsel Carol Sue Barnett with a list of the 297 injuries reported by Metro-North employees from July 2007 to July 2008, and asked "how many of these incidents resulted in charges being filed against the injured employee by Metro-North"? OSHA also asked for a copy of any disciplinary notices.

Here is Metro-North’s response: "after carefully reviewing the statutory scheme, we have concluded that OSHA lacks authority to require the production of specific documents and/or the compilation of information." Translation: "Go pound sand OSHA, you don’t have any subpoena power over us and you can’t force us to help you establish a basis for punitive damages against us."

Big mistake. On March 23, 2009, Region I Regional Administrator Marthe Kent and Region II Regional Administrator Robert D. Kulick jointly sent a letter to Metro-North, and it didn’t pull any punches: 

Because you have refused to respond to OSHA’s request, we intend to proceed with our investigation. Without documents from Metro-North, our determinations in these cases will be made on the basis of evidence obtained from the complainants. Thus, your refusal to supply the requested information and failure to cooperate with this investigation may lead OSHA to draw an adverse inference against Metro-North. Moreover, OSHA has authority to impose punitive damages in cases where it finds reckless or callous disregard for federally protected rights, or intentional violations of federal law.

So OSHA now has put railroads on notice: refuse to cooperate, and OSHA will draw an adverse inference that will be fatal to any FRSA defense. Reliance on OSHA’s lack of subpoena power will result in OSHA accepting all the complainant’s allegations as true and applying every possible adverse inference against the railroad. This almost certainly will lead to a finding of systemic violations and an Order for punitive damages against the railroad.

So, OSHA has no FRSA subpoena power? No problem! OSHA simply will unleash the devastating power of adverse inferences against recalcitrant railroads. And as a result, railroad managers will have their heads handed to them on a punitive damages platter of their own making.