On February 7, 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, located in St. Louis, Missouri, issued its opinion affirming a $740,282.26 verdict for Jose Villa in Jose Villa v. BNSF. The initial verdict was rendered by a jury in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on January 14, 2004 in favor of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company maintenance of way worker. See Straight Track #193.
Richard A. Haydu of Hoey & Farina, P.C. represented Mr. Villa, the plaintiff, in the Federal Employers' Liability Act suit in Des Moines, Iowa, as well as in the appeal argued in November, 2004 before a three judge panel for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This appellate opinion represents a significant victory for Mr. Villa, the railroad worker, as well as railroad workers in general, because the court favorably interpreted their rights in the face of the BNSF's attempt to restrict them.
The case involved a 50 year old former section laborer from Texas who was injured while working near Woodburn, Iowa. The BNSF had previously installed a series of lock spikes backwards in an area where Mr. Villa’s rail gang was replacing track. Because the lock spikes were installed backwards, the section gang could not use the on-track spike puller. Mr. Villa, the foreman, was ordered by his supervisor to remove the spikes with a hand held hydraulic spike puller which would accommodate lock spikes. Unfortunately, both the hydraulic pressure and the GPM flow on the truck powering this device were both improperly set at much higher than recommended levels. Also, the tie plates used did not allow the spike puller to sit level on top of the tie plate. These conditions violated internal BNSF maintenance of way publications and the operator’s manual for the device in question. As a result, the spike puller violently kicked back and knocked Mr. Villa to the ground, causing him to suffer a severe back injury, which required surgery. After his doctor disqualified him from returning to work due to the back injury, Mr. Villa sustained an unrelated medical illness which the railroad contended also disqualified him from returning to work on the railroad, independent of the work injury.
At trial, the BNSF attorney argued, among other things, that Mr. Villa’s subsequent illness cut off any claim he had to any future lost wages from the railroad, since he would not have been able to work on the railroad even if this work injury had not occurred. The railroad also argued that its accident report containing the information regarding the pressure settings of the hydraulic device and other damaging information was privileged, since it was compiled as an Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requirement and the information was sent to the FRA. The trial judge rejected both arguments.
After the initial jury verdict was entered, the BNSF appealed the verdict to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In that appeal, the railroad argued two main points. First, a disabled railroader is not entitled to any future lost wages if he experiences a later medical condition which would have independently disabled him. Second, the railroad argued that it should be shielded from producing reports that contain damaging information found during an investigation of an accident if it puts the heading “FRA Required Report” on the report and uses information from that report in a filing with the FRA. These arguments are discussed in greater detail, since these are tactics the railroads have successfully used in other cases in other parts of the country.
If the railroad’s position with respect to subsequent illnesses is accepted, an injured railroader better remain healthy. For example, if you are injured on a railroad and are not allowed to return to work due to your back injury, and one week later you suffer a heart attack which, in and of itself, precludes you from returning to work on the railroad, under the railroad’s analysis, you would be entitled to only one week of lost wages (up to the point of the heart attack), even if there are years or decades left to work. Although there have not been many cases involving this issue in the country, Mr. Haydu argued that, due to the humanitarian purpose of the FELA, the railroad should not be excused for years of lost wages just because the worker later suffered other health problems. The fact remains that the railroad turned a working individual into an individual incapable of working due to his back.
It should not be absolved by its employee’s later illness. The court disagreed with the railroad and stated that just because an individual had a later medical condition he would not be precluded from recovering future lost wages from the railroad as provided under the law.
It stated that where the effects of a railroad injury and later medical condition are not completely separable, the computation of future lost wages should not be automatically cut off and a jury should decide whether an employee’s work injury contributes to his inability to resume his former employment.
With respect to the FRA reports, under a federal statute, documents required to be filed by the FRA are not admissible in any litigation. The railroad attempted to use that statute to bar the use of the information contained in the damaging document. The FRA requires all railroads to compile certain information after an accident and make the information available to its employees. It also requires railroads to file a report with the FRA. The BNSF compiled the information required and made out the first report which is entitled “Alternate to FRA F6180.98 Personal Injury Report to Employee on Duty FRA Status Reportable.” It makes it appear that this form was the one actually filed with the FRA and, hence, privileged. When Mr. Haydu showed the judge the actual form the BNSF filed with the FRA, the railroad said since the information contained in the actual form filed with the FRA came from the railroad’s injury report form, it was still privileged. The trial judge saw through this ploy, and the Eighth Circuit agreed that the trial judge was correct in allowing the jury to see this document.