$1.538 Million Federal Jury Verdict in Railroad Switching Collision
At the time of his career ending injury, the Plaintiff, Glenn R. Belle, age 43, was a locomotive engineer employed by the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad. Mr. Belle had worked for the New Orleans Public Belt for over 10 years.
On the date of his injury, Mr. Belle was engaged in a railroad shoving operation. He was given a bad car count by a new, unsupervised conductor. The Plaintiff was radioed car counts of 20, 15, 10, 8, 2, ½, then, “That’ll do.”
Pursuant to federal regulations, specifically 49 C.F.R. § 220.49, entitled, “Radio Communication used in shoving, backing or pushing movements:"
When radio communication is used in connection with the shoving, backing or pushing of a train, locomotive, car, or on-track equipment, the employee directing the movement shall specify the distance of the movement, and the movement shall stop in one-half the remaining distance unless the additional instructions are received.
When Mr. Belle was given a car count of 20, he was required by rule to operate his locomotive at a speed that allowed him to stop within one-half of that distance, 10 cars. Thereafter, when Mr. Belle was given the car count of 10 car lengths, he was only authorized to travel 5 car lengths. Next, when Mr. Belle was given an 8 car count, he was authorized to move only 4 cars.
However, before Mr. Belle could even travel the distance of those 4 car lengths, the switchman quickly issued car counts of 2, ½, and stop. The uncontradicted testimony at trial showed that before Mr. Belle traveled the 4 car lengths he was authorized to move (when he was given the 8 car count), he collided with a standing cut of rail cars.
Notwithstanding these rule violations, NOPB’s switchman also failed to conduct a “safety stop” prior to the collision. NOPB General Superintendent Notice No. 32 in effect at the time of the accident requires:
When engaged in switching operations in any Yard or track on NOPB property and it is necessary for you to couple to a track of standing cars you must make sure:
Any employee riding equipment dismounts after safety stop is made.
Stop the movement at least 50 feet before coupling to the standing equipment.
Couplers are aligned.
At least one of the knuckles is open.
Strict adherence to this bulletin will ensure minimizing hard couplings, bypassed drawbars and unnecessary derailments caused by trying to couple to cars in curves.
Just prior to the collision in question, it was the duty of the railroad switchman on the ground to give Mr. Belle a car count that would stop the movement of the train at least 50 feet before coupling to the standing cars. The railroad switchman directing the movement of Mr. Belle’s train did not conduct this required “safety stop.”
On impact, Mr. Belle was ejected from his seat injuring his neck, left knee, and lumbar spine. NOPB officials immediately transported Mr. Belle to the Emergency Room for treatment. Mr. Belle underwent a one-level lumbar fusion at the L5-S1 level. Because of this surgery, necessitated by the train collision, Mr. Belle was unable to return to his career as a locomotive engineer.
The Defendant assigned all blame for all of Mr. Belle’s injuries to a pre-existing motorcycle accident when he was thrown 60 feet in the air and sustained a broken left leg and left arm. Alternatively, the Defendant also argued that a previous car accident was to blame for Mr. Belle’s neck, knee, and lower back injuries.
The Defendant also claimed that Mr. Belle was distracted at the time of the shoving movement given that another locomotive engineer, who happened to be a life-long friend of Mr. Belle, boarded the locomotive engine to discuss personal business. The Defendant alleged that Mr. Belle was distracted by his friend and therefore was not properly alert and attentive during the shoving movement.
However, at trial both men testified that once the shoving movement began, and the car counts began, both men ended the conversation.
Trial commenced in Federal District Court in New Orleans, Louisiana. A unanimous jury of 7 members found for Mr. Belle and rejected the defense’s contentions.
In its answer to the court’s special interrogatories, the jury found that NOPB violated 49 C.F.R. § 220.49 during the shoving movement. Pursuant to 45 U.S.C. § 53 of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act, this regulatory violation foreclosed any finding of comparative fault against Mr. Belle, resulting in NOPB’s 100% liability for his injuries.
The jury awarded a lump sum verdict of $1,583,000.00. This verdict included Mr. Belle’s total net wage loss, past and future, in the amount of $767,000.00. In terms of general damages, Plaintiff’s counsel argued to the jury that the value of Mr. Belle’s pain and suffering should at the very least equal his special damages. The jury awarded $771,000.00 in general damages, which appears to be one of the highest general damages awards in Louisiana for a one-level lumbar fusion. The total verdict was later reduced to $1,143,000.00 by the trial judge.