Appeals Court Upholds $3M Judgment in Columbia Falls Man’s Case Against BNSF

Former railroad employee argued he was wrongfully terminated after sustaining injuries in Whitefish rail yard

By Tristan Scott
A BNSF Railway employee guides an engine into a connection with other train cars at the yard in Whitefish. Beacon File Photo

A federal appeals court on June 22 upheld a Montana judge’s 2019 order awarding $3.1 million to a Columbia Falls man who sued BNSF Railway for wrongful termination after he was injured on the job.

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) by firing him 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.

On Nov. 5, 2018, after an 11-day trial, a 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, and $500,000 for his emotional distress.

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, 2019, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula denied BNSF’s motion for a new trial in the matter, but granted Wooten a motion to recoup $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. The total award in favor of Wooten against BNSF is $3,143,968.42.

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.”

Arguing that Wooten had sustained off-the-job injuries and lied about them, BNSF appealed Christensen’s order to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals demanding that it reverse or modify the order. On June 22, 2020, the appellate court rejected all of BNSF’s arguments and unanimously affirmed Christensen’s award.

Wooten was represented by Bill Jungbauer and John Magnuson of Yaeger and Jungbauer, Barristers, PLC, of St. Paul, Minnesota. The attorneys described the case as one of the largest payouts ever handed down by a jury under the law.

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.

In a 68-page order outlining justification for the jury’s award, Christensen wrote that BNSF officials’ testimony that Wooten previously injured himself and then lied about it was “both inconsistent and lacking in credibility.”