Runaway railcar crashes into second railcar, which runs over worker’s legs

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Verdicts & Settlements: Railroads

October 8, 2009

Runaway railcar crashes into second railcar, which runs over worker’s legs 

While Robert Riley, 45, was unloading lumber from railcars in an industrial yard, one railcar rolled down an incline and struck another railcar, which ran over Riley. The car severed one of his legs below the knee and the foot on his other leg.

Riley incurred about $354,000 in medical expenses and expects about $294,400 in future medical costs. He had been earning about $31,900 annually, but is now permanently disabled, resulting in about $680,700 in total lost income.

An investigation found that the railcar rolled down the hill because it was missing a part in its hand brake mechanism. An employee released the brake system on the outside of the car, but before he could climb into the car to slowly release the inner hand brake, allowing the train to gradually descend the hill, the car began to move.

Riley sued the railroad company that owned the railcar, Norfolk Southern Railway Co., alleging its employees should not have placed the defective railcar in the industrial yard, which violated the railroad’s rules, industry practices, and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations. He also contended the defective brake violated the Federal Safety Appliance Act.

Norfolk Southern’s employees should have inspected the hand brake mechanism to ensure it was not broken, Riley argued. Because Riley was an employee of the company that ran the industrial yard, not the railroad, he had to sue in state court under a common law negligence claim.

Norfolk Southern contended that Riley was contributorily negligent because he walked between two railcars—the car he was unloading and the car that hit him—when he should have known there was a possibility that the car could come down the hill. Riley countered that it wasn’t reasonable to expect him to know that the car would race down the track. He also argued that if he had been a railroad employee and been able to sue in federal court under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act, the railroad would not have been able to use that defense. The same rule of law should apply here, Riley contended.

The railroad brought in Riley’s employer as a third-party defendant under an indemnity agreement.

During pretrial mediation, the parties settled for $1.5 million, including a waiver of an unspecified amount in workers’ compensation liens.

Citation: Riley v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., No. CL07000178-00 (Va., Henry Co. Cir. June 2009).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ member H. Keith Moore, Roanoke, Virginia.

Plaintiff experts: Stephen M. Timko, railroad rules and work practices, South Heights, Pennsylvania; and Michael O’Brien, FRA regulations, Marietta, Georgia.

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