The first two stages of grief are denial and anger. And when it comes to the Federal Rail Safety Act, railroads still are deeply mired in denial and anger. As a result, any time OSHA’s Whistleblower Office hands down a FRSA award against a railroad, the railroad reacts with angry denial and automatically appeals for a de novo trial before an administrative law judge. Well, here is compelling evidence that such reflexive appeals of FRSA awards expose railroads to economic disaster.

In October 2008 OSHA ordered Amtrak to pay $20,000 in punitive damages plus back pay to a coach cleaner in Seattle who experienced retaliation after reporting an injury. Amtrak’s denial toward the FRSA blinded it to the merits of the case, and out of anger at being ordered to pay punitive damages it reflexively appealed for a ALJ trial. The trial was held in June 2009 before ALJ Steven B. Berlin, and now ALJ Berlin has just issued a 29 page Decision and Order (the first to be issued by an ALJ after a de novo FRSA trial).

So what has Amtrak accomplished by its appeal? Let’s see. Instead of paying $20,000 in punitive damages, now it must pay $100,000. Instead of paying no compensatory damages, now it must pay $60,000. Instead of paying no attorneys fees, now it must pay for the attorney fees and trial costs generated by BOTH sets of lawyers during the trial (that’s right, Amtrak now must pay not only for its own attorneys but also for the employee’s attorneys). So as a result of its denial and anger, the railroad will end up paying over ten times the amount of the OSHA award.  Not to mention establishing a foundation for even higher punitive damage awards against Amtrak in the future.

The lesson for railroads is clear: angry denial is not a viable defense strategy. Until you take off your blinders of denial, until you let go of your anger at the FRSA’s threat to your management culture of retaliation, this pattern will be repeated again and again. Remember, the final stage of the grieving process is acceptance. The longer you stay stuck in denial and anger, the more it will cost you. And when you finally read the plain language of the FRSA’s text with an open mind, and actually stop retaliating against employees who report injuries or safety concerns, it won’t cost you a dime.

Stay tuned for more posts on the finer points of this important ground breaking Decision. For the full text of Nicole Anderson v. Amtrak, click here.