A Jefferson County, Mo., jury awarded $12.5 million to Michael Bolen, a railroad worker whose right leg was amputated after being run over by a train. The worker was hurt in May 2012 as he was directing trains in a rail yard in Crystal City, Missouri. Bolen was walking along the track when he tripped over a large rock that was left in the rail yard and fell onto the tracks. Both legs were run over by a slow-moving train. His right leg was crushed and later was amputated below the knee. Bolen also lost part of the heel on his left foot. This is believed to be the largest personal-injury verdict in the history of Jefferson County.
Bolen, a conductor/switchman for BNSF Railway, had worked for the company about eight years. He was earning about $80,000 a year. It was contended that the train company was negligent in having a rocky area where workers walked. The railroad had recently resurfaced the track, bringing in rock from a quarry, but the rock was supposed to be smaller than the one Bolen tripped over, which was about 9 inches by 5 inches.
The suit was brought under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). Bolen sought compensation for medical treatment he will need in the future, lost wages, pain and disfigurement. The damages sought were to compensate Bolen for his injury and not punish the railroad. That’s because under the applicable federal law, punitive damages aren’t allowed. After the accident, Bolen underwent numerous surgeries and had to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg. He applied for many jobs, but it appears all he could get was an $8-an-hour job at a car wash.
Bolen’s case included testimony from an economist who calculated lost earnings. Bolen had been a Marine before the railroad job, and he was in good shape and enjoyed hiking in state parks before his injury. In order to recover, Bolen had to show negligence or that the working conditions were unsafe. The railroad indicated that Bolen wasn’t walking along the tracks, but instead was riding on a rail car and had lied about what happened. But an audio recording of dispatchers at the rail yard indicated that Bolen had been walking before the accident.
The railroad hired mechanical engineers who claimed that the forces involved were inconsistent with tripping and falling and getting caught under a train. Another engineer hired by BNSF used computer animation to contend that the incident couldn’t have happened the way Bolen described. Another witness for the Defense testified that Bolen could get a better-paying job than the car wash. There was no video of the accident. The only camera in the area was on the front of a locomotive facing the other direction.
After the verdict, a member of the jury, Cecilia Patriarca, said the railroad tried to convince the jury that the accident happened differently, but failed to do so. She said that “they (railroad) just didn’t prove their case very well.” She said the jurors felt that Bolen had fallen the way he said he had fallen. Nelson G. Wolfe, a lawyer with Schlichter, Bogard & Denton, a firm located in St. Louis, Mo., represented the Plaintiff. He did a very good job in this case.
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