A Columbia Falls man was awarded more than $2.1 million in federal court on Nov. 5 after a jury decided he had been wrongfully terminated by BNSF Railway following an on-the-job injury in 2015.
Zachary Wooten sued BNSF in 2016 alleging the company violated the Federal Rail Safety Act after he was injured in the Whitefish rail yard in July 2015. The Federal Railroad Safety Act is a long-standing federal law that was amended in 2007 to protect whistleblowers and those injured on the job. Wooten’s attorney, William Jungbauer, said the recent case was one of the largest payouts ever handed down by a jury under the law.
BNSF officials tell the Beacon that they are “disappointed” in the jury’s decision.
According to court documents, Wooten was working as a conductor in the Whitefish rail yard when he exited a locomotive to conduct a “roll by,” a visual inspection of another train. Wooten encounter a jammed door handle on his way out of the cab and, while trying to open it, heard a pop and felt a pain in his right wrist. After finishing the roll by, Wooten climbed back on to the locomotive and grabbed on to the handrails. When he did that, his right wrist gave way due to the injury he had just suffered and he fell onto the rock ballast. He suffered “severe and disabling” injuries to his wrist and arm.
Wooten informed his superiors of both his injury and the defective door handle. BNSF conducted an investigation into the incident. Jungbauer said his client was dismissed because Wooten would not file a false injury report that stated he injured his wrist prior to arriving to work.
“They wanted him to make up a story,” Jungbauer said.
But BNSF officials have a different version of events that they outlined in a brief statement to the Beacon.
“Mr. Wooten was dismissed for dishonesty in 2015 after a full investigation that included representation by three union representatives on his behalf. BNSF denies it has violated the law,” the railroad states.
But the jury disagreed, and after an 11-day trial in U.S. District Court in Missoula decided that BNSF had violated the Federal Employers’ Liability Act and the Federal Railroad Safety Act. Although Wooten’s attorney argued that the railroad had also violated the Locomotive Inspection Act — a federal statute that requires railroads to maintain locomotives so that they can be operated in a safe manner — the jury did not agree.
The jury awarded Wooten more than $2.1 million for lost wages, pain and suffering and punitive damages.
BNSF officials said they are looking at options to appeal the decision.
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