When airline pilots feel medically unfit to fly, they have a right to stand down and seek medical attention without any adverse consequences. Thanks to the Federal Rail Safety Act, locomotive engineers (and all other railroad workers) now enjoy the same right to protect themselves, their co-workers, and the public.

When Locomotive Engineer Lonnie Smith became dizzy with blurred vision, he informed his supervisor Senior Terminal Manager Steven Wilson it was unsafe for him to continue working and requested medical attention. Manager Wilson responded by threatening Smith with discipline if he did not continue working.

Administrative Law Judge Lee J. Romero, Jr. heard all the evidence, and found such conduct to be an egregious violation of the FRSA that required the imposition of punitive damages. Here are some excerpts from the Judge’s 82-page Decision:

Complainant engaged in protected activity by: reporting his illness which was significantly aggravated by his working conditions; requesting medical treatment or care which was denied, delayed, or interfered with by the Railroad; and expressing his belief that it was unsafe for him to continue performing his work while ill, which he reasonably believed constituted a violation of the FRA safety regulations.

In the instant case, punitive damages are warranted for several reasons. Union Pacific and Smith’s manager were egregiously reprehensible resulting in retaliatory acts which caused Smith to suffer physical and emotional harm. The manager threatened and coerced Smith into continuing to work despite repeated statements by Smith that he could not safely work because of his illness symptoms and requests to seek medical care. Moreover, the Railroad’s actions also put Smith’s co-workers and the public in harms way by requiring him to continue to work under such dire circumstances. I find that these actions demonstrate a complete indifference to, and a callous disregard for employee health and safety.

Completion of work was more important to Manager Wilson than an employee’s request for medical care and treatment. . . . Given this factual scenario, I find Union Pacific’s conduct to be outrageous and unsympathetic to the rights of its workers. Therefore, I find it proper to award punitive damages to punish Union Pacific’s disregard for its worker’s rights and to deter similar conduct in the future.

The Judge not only ordered the Railroad to pay punitive damages, he also ordered Manager Wilson to pay additional punitive damages to Smith. For the full text of Lonnie Smith v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, click here. For the leading briefs explaining why the FRSA grants railroad employees the right not to work when medically unfit, see Complainant Bala’s Brief in Bala v. PATH and the United States Department of Labor’s Amicus Brief in support of Bala.