Cook County Railroad Employee Awarded 1.26 Million for Defective Track Switch Injury – Barnicle v. Belt Railway Company of Chicago

A recent Cook County personal injury lawsuit involving a railway worker who was injured at work exemplifies many of the typical components for worksite injury lawsuits. Not only were there several defendants involved whom the injured worker held responsible for his work injury, but the defendants alleged that the railroad worker was actually responsible for his own injury. It was up to the jury in James Barnicle v. Belt Railway Company of Chicago, 06 L 1325, to decide who was at fault for the railroad accident.

In order to determine who was at fault, the jury must first examine the case facts. At the time of the work accident, 48 year-old James Barnicle was working as a railroad switchman for The Belt Railway Company of Chicago. His duties involved switching railcars traveling in and out of the Exxon Mobil plant located off Cicero Avenue. However, as he was engaging a track switch, it unexpectedly jerked towards him, causing an injury to his lumbar spine.

Barnicle claimed that the specific track switch was defective and that Exxon Mobil had prior notice of this defect. Plaintiff’s lawyers attempted to establish the prior notice by submitting evidence that other employees had reported that the switch was difficult to operate and in need of repair. The idea being that if the jury believed that Exxon knew that the track switch was defective, but did nothing to repair the switch, then Exxon would be responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries.

However, the defense denied the plaintiff’s claims that the switch was defective. Exxon Mobil testified that it did not receive any notice regarding employees’ difficulty operating the switch. Exxon further stated that even if there had been notice of a problem, that it was the duty of IREC, a third party independent contractor, to maintain the train switch.

The defense did not stop at simply defending itself from the plaintiff’s claims of liability, but went a step farther and suggested that the plaintiff himself was liable for his own railroad injury. Exxon argued that if Barnicle knew the train switch was not working properly then he should not have been using it. Not only did Barnicle have many years of experience at handling train switches, but had worked with this particular switch on a regular basis. Therefore, the defense felt that if anyone was knowledgeable as to the extent of the switch’s defects and safety, it was Barnicle.

However, if the jury fails to agree with the defense’s suggestion that Barnicle alone was responsible for his work injury, then Exxon could be responsible for paying some of his medical bills. Therefore, it has a vested interest in convincing the jury that his injuries are not as severe as the plaintiff suggests.

Plaintiff maintained that he suffered a spinal fracture extending from his L4 spine down to his S1 spine. Not only did he need a spinal fusion involving both his lumbar and sacral region, but also later needed to undergo a revision surgery. In addition, the plaintiff testified at the Cook County jury trial that the trauma of the workplace injury caused him to suffer from depression. Not only was Barnicle unable to return to his prior train switch job, but his doctor also advised Barnicle to even decline a clerical job his employer offered him for medical reasons However, the defense sought to diffuse some of the plaintiff’s injury claims and thereby decrease the extent of potential damages.

While the defense was somewhat successful in convincing the jury of the plaintiff’s culpability in his Cook County work injury, it was less successful at disproving the extent of his injuries. The jury issued a $1.26 million verdict against the four defendants:

-$744,000 for past and future loss of earnings;
-$700,000 for loss of normal life;
-$540,000 for pain and suffering; and
-$120,000 for future medical expenses.

The jury found the plaintiff to be 40% responsible for his own injury; his employer, Beltway Railroad was also found to be 40% responsible, while Exxon Mobil was 18% and IREC only 2% responsible.

For over 35 years, Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Chicago work injury lawsuits for individuals and families in and around Chicago and Cook County, including Calumet City, Elk Grove Village, Harwood Heights, and Rolling Meadows.

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