A federal jury found Norfolk Southern Railway, one of the nation’s largest transportation companies, guilty of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ordered the company to pay a verdict of approximately $10.6 million to a former conductor. However, the Court vacated the jury’s award shortly after due to statutory caps placed on ADA in 1991 that limit damage amounts.
The verdict came in response to a suit filed by the former conductor in 2013 when he was barred from returning to work for nearly three years after sustaining an off-the-job injury. Warren Whitted worked for Norfolk for almost a year when he suffered his significant, yet temporary, injuries that put him out of work for a short period of time. However, when he was medically cleared without restriction by several doctors, Norfolk’s Medical Director refused to allow him his job back, stating she believed Whitted suffered from “cognitive impairments that were not readily fixable through training.”
During the trial, prosecutors pointed out that the Medical Director had never examined or spoken to Whitted regarding his disqualification, but still sent him an unsigned form letter telling him he could not return to his position following his incident. The letter also did not highlight what Whitted could do to regain access to his position, despite his having wanted to be a conductor his entire life.
The jury determined Norfolk Southern’s actions were reckless, willful and violated the ADA. The jury awarded Whitted $8 million in punitive damages, $2.5 million for mental anguish, and $96,521 in lost wages and benefits.
The ADA law states the amount of compensatory damages and the amount of punitive damages awarded under this section can’t be more than $300,000 for each Plaintiff against a company that has more than 500 employees, so the pain and anguish and punitive awards will likely be reduced to $300,000. However, the railway company may still be held liable for the full amount of lost wages and benefits, as well as Witted’s attorney fees and court costs.
Heather Leonard, one of the lawyers working for Whitted on the case, sent a statement to AL.com regarding the outcome. She had this to say:
We are obviously disappointed by the reduction of the award, although we are bound to abide by it based on the current status of the law. I think the jury’s verdict shows, however, that the current caps in place for cases such as this are outdated. The applicable caps were adopted in 1991 and have not been amended or modified since. It is unfortunate that an employer with 30,000 employees who willfully violates federal law can avoid a jury’s judgement based on damages caps put in place 25 years ago.
This was a very good result in the case. The lawyers did good work.
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