Former Union Pacific Workers Cry Foul Over Disability Policies

by | Sep 13, 2022 | Railroad Injuries, Railroad Workers

UP allegedly fired thousands of workers because the company decided, based on little or no medical evidence, that the workers were disabled and unable to do their jobs, according to legal documents filed with multiple entities.

“What makes this case so egregious is the planning from the top down,” one observer said. “It is one thing for a rogue manager in a company to discriminate on the basis of disability. This case is different because this company targeted people with disabilities and disqualified them from working without even examining them and many times without even talking to them.” UP may be liable for up to $350 million in damages, according to legal experts.

The railroad has defended its “sudden incapacitation” policy, which forbids employees who have any chance of sudden incapacitation from working for the company. “Union Pacific medical personnel who have a thorough understanding of a railroad’s unique operational requirements assess employees’ medical condition to determine if it prevents them from safely performing their essential job duties in accordance with our medical standards and obligations under the ADA,” a spokesperson insisted. “In addition, Union Pacific often engages third-party medical consultants to assist with medical reviews,” she added.

The Federal Employees Liability Act

Most UP workers took legal action because of a non-job-related disability. These claims are quite complex. On-the-job disabilities, however, are a bit more straightforward, because of FELA

In less than thirty-five years (between 1889 and 1920), the railroad network in the United States expanded by over 600 percent. Immigrant and unskilled laborers did much of the work. These laborers generally worked under very difficult conditions in very isolated areas. President Benjamin Harrison poetically compared the hardships these workers faced to “a peril of life and limb as great as that of a soldier in time of war.”

Injured war veterans, who were hurt during service to their country, had some injury compensation options. Injured railroad workers, who were also hurt during service to their country, had nothing. So, lawmakers passed the Federal Employees Liability Act. The railroad barons fought FELA all the way to the Supreme Court, but a modified version of the law finally took effect in 1908.

In effect, FELA was a cross between the civil court injury compensation system and the growing workers’ compensation system. Civil court claimants must prove that negligence, or a lack of care, substantially caused their injuries. Workers’ compensation petitioners don’t have to prove negligence, but they aren’t entitled to as many damages. FELA claimants must prove that railroad negligence contributed to their injuries.

Railroad owners hate FELA. The aforementioned Supreme Court fight was just the beginning. Over the next fifty years, the railroad magnates and their legislative allies introduced twenty-six bills that would have restricted or eliminated FELA. All those measures failed.

Many FELA claimants have alleged that toxic exposure on the job caused brain injuries and other issues. CSX, which is the largest railroad company in the eastern United States, paid about $35 million to settle such claims. Much to the chagrin of railroad owners, FELA also applies to on-the-job trauma injuries.

On-The-Job Trauma Injuries

Falls are the most common work-related trauma injury, not only in the railroad industry, but in the United States as a whole. Railroad workers must often jump on and off moving railroad cars. These jumps are challenging even for experienced workers, especially if the weather is bad and/or they have pre-existing conditions. Specific fall-related trauma injuries include:

  • Spine Injuries: A fall, or even an unexpectedly large step, could knock the delicate spine out of alignment. These injuries are extremely painful at best, and completely debilitating at worst. These injuries also cause ongoing issues. The average lifelong medical bills in a serious spine injury case usually exceed $5 million.
  • Broken Bones: Fall-related broken bones are much more serious than other kinds of broken bones. Doctors must normally use metal plates, screws, or other implements to surgically reconstruct shattered bones. As a result, the road to recovery is long and difficult. Even after physical therapists finish their work, some lingering injury, like lost range of motion, usually remains.
  • Head Injuries: A fall is a double whammy in this area, since these incidents usually cause impact-related and motion-related head injuries. The skull isn’t much thicker than any other bone, so a hard fall almost always cracks it. Furthermore, the violent motion of a fall causes the brain to repeatedly slam against the insides of the skull.

If railroad negligence contributed to the fall in any way, even if it was traveling 1mph over the recommended speed limit, a Lexington personal injury attorney can obtain compensation through FELA. 

The same analysis applies to other trauma injuries, like serious burns. Touching a hot diesel engine could cause a serious burn, as could breathing certain chemicals. Both temperature and chemical burns usually leave physical and emotional scars. Compensation is available for both kinds of injuries.

Injury victims are usually entitled to substantial compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Lexington, contact the Goode Law Office, PLLC. Virtual, home, and hospital visits are available.