When can a $13,000 FELA injury turn into a $3.2 million Judgment against a railroad? Answer: When the railroad violates the Federal Rail Safety Act. Wooten v. BNSF Railway is yet another demonstration of the transformative power of Section 20109’s whistleblower protections.
When Zachary Wooten reported a wrist injury, BNSF accused him of dishonesty and fired him. The jury decided to send a message BNSF will never forget: $1.4 million in front pay, $500,000 for emotional distress, and $249,999 in punitive damages. The District Judge upheld the jury’s verdict, and added $42,732 in prejudgment interest, $657,107 in attorney fees, and $339,014 in costs and expenses, for a total Judgment of over $3.2 million.
The 20 page Decision is worth reading for many reasons, but here is a quote regarding the front pay award:
Wooten was wrongfully terminated by BNSF, cutting short what he hoped would be a lifetime career with great benefits and excellent pay. Prevailing under the FRSA entitles Wooten “to all relief necessary to make [him] whole.” The Court is convinced that a front pay award of $1,407,978 falls squarely within that statutory directive.
The FRSA allows FELA attorneys to look jurors in the eye and ask them “to send a message” that violations of the FRSA will not be tolerated. And jurors have done just that, sending multi-million dollar messages in cases where the FELA injury is relatively minor. It remains to be seen if railroads will ever “get it” and actually change their retaliatory cultures. But until then, judgments like Wooten will continue to be handed down. For more on the rights of rail employees under the FRSA, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.