HKM Wins Defense Verdict for Railroad in FELA Claim

Submitted by HKM Profession… on Wed, 10/16/2019 - 15:35

Swift Jury Deliberation Results in No Negligence or Causation

Trial attorneys Daniel Haws and John Wells recently obtained a defense verdict for a railroad client of the firm. This one-week jury trial in Minneapolis, MN, involved a Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) claim that a loud locomotive sound resulted in hearing impairment. 

The case arose from a May 2016 incident at a locomotive diesel shop, in which the plaintiff, a 23-year-old machinist, walked by a locomotive less than a yard from the blowdown valve when it released air. The plaintiff was not wearing hearing protection at that time, though she claimed to have regularly worn it. Hearing protection was discretionary in the shop. 

Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Alleged
The plaintiff claimed the release of air was extremely loud and immediately caused her to develop tinnitus (ringing of the ears) and hyperacusis (sound sensitivity). 

She sought medical treatment and was later diagnosed with permanent tinnitus and hyperacusis. Though her doctors restricted her from working in the diesel shop, she remained in her machinist position for some time after the incident. The plaintiff and her experts determined that the presence of loud and unanticipated noises in the shop caused ongoing symptoms and anxiety that precluded her ability to continue as a machinist. She left her position for several months, then changed crafts to work as an office clerk, which paid less than the machinist position. 

In addition, she claimed the injury prevented her from enjoying many aspects of life, including eating out or being in public where loud noises exist. She alleged constant pain and suffering due to the ringing in her ears and sensitivity to sound. 

FELA Claim Sought
The plaintiff sued our client pursuant to the FELA, seeking compensation for past and future lost wages and pain and suffering, as well as the cost of noise masking devices she would need to wear for life and replace periodically. The plaintiff alleged, and the railroad admitted, that an internal safety directive requiring the electronic circuit to the locomotive’s air system be disabled when they were in the shop had been violated. She asserted that had this directive been followed, the blowdown valve would not have gone off and injured her as she walked by. Given the plaintiff’s young age, the potential wage differential between her machinist and clerk jobs was significant when considered over the course of her lengthy remaining work-life expectancy.

Noise Levels Compliant with OSHA Regulations

  • We disputed the FELA claim and provided testimony from our client’s managerial employees showing that the internal directive was not intended to cover noise complaints, but instead was intended to cover “line of fire” concerns. 
  • Employing the reports of an industrial hygienist who tested the noise levels associated with the release of air on the subject locomotive, we proved that the noise levels involved were compliant with OSHA noise regulations. 
  • We showed that the noise levels at issue were low enough that OSHA would not have required hearing protection in the diesel shop. 

A Favorable Result
The jury returned a verdict finding no negligence on the part of our client, and no causation regarding the plaintiff’s alleged injuries after approximately two and half hours of deliberation.

HKM commends Daniel Haws and John Wells for their skillful representation, and excellent result obtained for our client.

Daniel A. HawsDan Haws focuses his practice on the areas of Aviation LitigationProduct Liability, Commercial Litigation, Financial Services and Business Litigation, Insurance Related Litigation, and Transportation Litigation. He has successfully tried more than 50 jury trials to verdict throughout the Midwest and has handled numerous cases on appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, serving as lead trial counsel on most of the appeals. Dan was elected to the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA. He has an AV® Preeminent™ Peer Review Rating in the distinguished legal directory, Martindale-Hubbell®* and has been selected among America's Top 100 Attorneys®, Lifetime Achievement. He has been selected for inclusion in Minnesota Super Lawyers®, 2003-2017 Editions and was also named a "top personal injury lawyer" in defense by Minnesota Law & Politics. Dan is admitted to practice in all state, federal and appellate courts in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, and the U.S. District Court – District of North Dakota.

John WellsJohn Wells is a Senior Attorney in HKM's Civil Litigation Group, practicing primarily in the areas of Toxic Torts and Transportation Litigation.

John represents manufacturers in toxic tort and asbestos matters in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. He has also been a member of the HKM legal team representing businesses and individuals in premises liability matters involving serious personal injuries from falls, as well as catastrophic injuries from oilfield-related incidents.

In transportation law, John has represented transportation companies, including Class I railroads, in various types of litigation. He has also represented manufacturers whose products were used on locomotives.