There has been a flurry of Federal Rail Safety Act decisions in the past few weeks, all positive for workers, and all demonstrating a trend toward higher punitive damage awards.
Pfeifer v. Union Pacific Railroad concerns retaliation against a conductor who reported safety hazards. After he reported rough spots on the railroad track, he was subjected to increased field testing and ultimately suspended without pay. OSHA found that such conduct has a real chilling effect on the willingness of workers to report safety issues, and ordered Union Pacific to pay $100,000 in punitive damages for its “outrageous behavior and callous disregard for the rights of its employees.”
Newman v. Union Pacific Railroad also concerns retaliation against a conductor who reported safety concerns. He was pulled out of service and permanently dismissed from service in retaliation for taking safety seriously enough to report safety hazards he noted in the right-of-way. OSHA ordered Union Pacific to pay over $250,000 in make whole damages, including $150,000 in punitive damages.
Wallis v. Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway concerns a hostler who reported an injury and was subjected to the Railroad’s infamous Personal Performance Index Point Distribution (PPI) policy, which assigns disciplinary points to injuries that are FRA reportable. The hostler was suspended without pay for 30 days, and OSHA found that Union Pacific’s enforcement of its PPI policy for reporting a work-related injury violates the FRSA. OSHA ordered the Railroad to pay $150,000 in punitive damages, which reflects the FRSA’s antipathy to system-wide policies of retaliation, and $125,000 for “mental pain and suffering,” which reflects the solid medical evidence documenting the hostler’s emotional distress.
Harvey v. Union Pacific Railroad concerns a locomotive engineer who reported an injury two months after it occurred. Despite the fact he was “a dedicated employee who had no history of prior poor performance or misconduct,” Union Pacific terminated him for “failing to report an injury in a timely manner.” However, OSHA found the engineer “was reasonable in delaying reporting his injury because he initially did not believe he had been so severely injured as to warrant putting himself at risk of retaliation for reporting the injury.” The Railroad was ordered to pay $150,000 in punitive damages “for its egregious and willful behavior and for its disregard for the rights of its employees under FRSA.” OSHA also ordered the Railroad to pay $75,000 for the “undue pain and suffering” it caused.
For OSHA’s press release about the three Union Pacific cases, click here. Over the past two years FRSA punitive damage awards have progressed from $75,000 to $100,000 to $125,000 and now to $150,000. But the railroads could care less. They have continued doing business as usual, or rather violations as usual, and their management culture of retaliation remains intact. If OSHA wants the railroads to take the FRSA seriously, it will have to increase punitive damage awards to the maximum allowed by law, and impose system-wide injunctions against every railroad’s retaliatory policies and patterns of conduct.
But the message from these recent cases is clear: the path to six figure punitive and emotional distress damages is starting to get very well-trod, and promises to expand into a highway routinely traveled by thousands of workers if railroads continue to ignore the FRSA’s mandate to treat the reporting of injuries and safety concerns as discipline-free events.