Former BNSF Worker Awarded $1M in Addition to Original $2.1M Judgment

Federal judge rules wrongfully terminated Columbia Falls man entitled to attorneys’ fees, other expenses; denies BNSF's request for new trial

By Tristan Scott
A BNSF Railway train in the Flathead Valley. Beacon file photo

In reaffirming a $2.1 million judgment awarded to a Columbia Falls man last year after a jury determined he was wrongfully terminated from his position at BNSF Railway, a federal judge in Missoula has ordered the company to pay an additional $1 million in prejudgment interest, attorneys’ fees and expenses, expert witness fees, and court costs.

The case involves Zachary Wooten, who sued BNSF in 2016 alleging the company violated the Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA), the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) and the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) 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 attorneys described the case as one of the largest payouts ever handed down by a jury under the law.

On Nov. 5, 2018, after an 11-day trial, the jury found that BNSF had not violated the LIA but did violate FRSA and FELA. The jury also found that Wooten was partially responsible for his injuries under FELA, and assigned him 25 percent contributory negligence.

The jury awarded Wooten damages in the amount of $17,570 for lost wages and benefits up to the date of trial, which the court reduced by 25 percent in order to reflect Wooten’s contributory negligence for a total award of $13,177.50.

On his FRSA claim, the jury awarded Wooten $1,407,978 in lost wages and benefits in the future, reduced to present value, and $500,000 for his mental and emotional humiliation or pain and anguish.

Additionally, after finding that BNSF’s conduct was malicious or in reckless disregard for Wooten’s rights, the jury awarded Wooten $249,999 in punitive damages.

On April 23, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen denied BNSF’s motion for a new trial in the matter, but granted Wooten $657,107 in attorneys’ fees, $233,994 for expert witnesses, $42,732 in prejudgment interest on the jury’s $500,000 emotional-distress award, and $81,713.22 in attorneys’ expenses.

In upholding the jury’s award, Christensen wrote that “Wooten was wrongfully terminated by BNSF, cutting short what he hoped would be a lifetime career with great benefits and excellent pay” and that the award “falls squarely within that statutory directive.”

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. Wooten was dismissed because, according to his attorneys, he would not file a false injury report that stated he injured his wrist prior to arriving to work.

BNSF has 30 days to file a notice of appeal in the case. A spokesperson for the company did not immediately provide comment on the order.

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