Thanks to the Federal Rail Safety Act, railroads can no longer interfere with the medical treatment of injured employees. That fact is being reinforced with punitive damage awards against railroads who ignore this new reality.

In the landmark decision of Santiago v. Metro North Railroad, the Administrative Review Board held that FRSA "Section 20109(c)(1) bars a railroad from denying, delaying, or interfering with an employee’s medical treatment throughout the period of treatment and recovery from a work injury." The ARB also held that a prima facie FRSA violation is established "the instant that the railroad carrier directly or indirectly inserts itself into the process and causes a denial, delay, or interference with the medical treatment." Such a railroad is liable under the FRSA unless it proves "by clear and convincing evidence that the result would have been the same with or without the railroad’s interference" with the medical treatment.

The ARB remanded Santiago to Administrative Law Judge Geraghty for an application of those legal standards to the facts. Judge Geraghty’s Remand Decision confirms that Metro North did indeed violate the FRSA when it interfered with Santiago’s medical treatment based on the decision of its Medical Department to classify his injury as non-occupational, a decision that "was contrary to the objective diagnostic tests, medical records, ongoing symptoms, and the treating physician’s opinion."

Here are some of Judge Geraghty’s findings regarding punitive damages:

I find that the circumstances of this case warrant an award of punitive damages. The recent whistleblower amendments to the FRSA were created in response to Congress’ concern that some railroad policies reduce employees’ willingness to report work-related injuries. The actions of Metro North are exactly what the amendments were intended to prevent. . . . Metro North’s reckless indifference and disregard for its responsibilities under the newly enacted Section 20109(c) of the FRSA is reprehensible. Following the effective date of Section 20109(c), Metro North did not instruct its Medical Department staff to change anything nor did it instruct them not to delay, deny, or interfere with the medical treatment of an employee’s treating doctor. . . . Metro North’s interference resulted in a four month delay in Santiago’s treatment, prolonging his pain . . . Based on the foregoing, I conclude that an award of punitive damages is appropriate in this case.

The new reality is that the instant a railroad medical department directly or indirectly interferes with the medical treatment of an injured employee, the railroad will be on the hook for punitive damages, plus any other FRSA damage elements such as emotional distress.