Cook County 1.5 Million Verdict for Injuries Suffered When Railcar Grab-Bar Breaks Off; Walters v. Belt Railway Company of Chicago

A Cook County jury returned a verdict of over $1.5 million in Joseph Walters v. Belt Railway Company of Chicago, Chicago Northern Railroad Co., Gunderson Rail Services n/k/a Greenbrier Rail Services, 06 L-7349, an Illinois personal injury lawsuit for a railroad employee who was injured on the job. Since the railroad had already admitted liability for the train accident prior to trial, the Illinois verdict involved issues of damages only, e.g., loss of normal life, past and future pain and suffering, medical expenses, and lost income.

Joseph Walters was a railroad freight conductor working at a clearing yard owned by Belt Railway Company of Chicago in Bedford Park, Illinois. Mr. Walters fell from a train car after a grab-iron handhold that he was holding detached from the car. Grab-irons are the handles on the outside of trains that railroad employees use to hold onto the cars. As a result of his train accident, the railroad worker sustained a herniated disc at his L4-L5 spine and a rotator cuff tear.

The 41 year-old underwent multiple surgeries, including a spinal fusion and rotator cuff repair surgery, but was still left with permanent disabilities. In addition, Mr. Walters’s prolonged pain led to the long-term use of various narcotic pain medications, which he claimed led to chronic constipation, hemorrhoids, and hernia repair surgery.

The plaintiff filed his Illinois personal injury claim under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), which applies to all railroad employees who were injured as a result of their employer’s negligence. Mr. Walters also filed an additional claim under the FELA Safety Appliance Act, which applies to work-related injuries that result from faulty equipment, such as grab-iron handholds, ladders, running boards, etc.

Unlike a typical Illinois workers’ compensation lawsuit, a FELA lawsuit does not automatically compensate railroad employees for any injury that occurs in the scope of one’s job duties. Rather, under FELA requirements, an injured railroad employee must prove that his or her injury was a direct result of the railroad’s negligence.

The FELA complaint in Walters alleged that Belt Railway Company of Chicago was negligent through its failure to provide a secure grab-iron. The complaint also filed claims against both California Northern Railroad and Gunderson Rail Services for their negligence in providing proper maintenance and repair to the grab-iron in question. Prior to the trial, both California Northern Railroad and Gunderson Rail Services settled with the plaintiff for $212,500 and $375,000 respectively. Therefore, by the time of the Illinois personal injury trial the only defendant remaining in the FELA lawsuit was Belt Railway Company of Chicago.

At the trail, Belt Railway Company admitted liability for the plaintiff’s personal injury, which meant that Mr. Walters no longer had to prove it was negligent. Rather the Cook County FELA trial went before the jury on issues of damages only. Specifically, the Cook County jury was asked to consider whether the plaintiff’s shoulder injury was a result of his fall. In addition, the defendant Belt Railway argued that the plaintiff’s injury would have been lessened had he accepted the railroad company’s offer to pay for a pain management program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

At trial, the plaintiff demonstrated that he had lost $261,000 in wages from his job as a train conductor while he was in treatment to attempt to regain his mobility following the train accident and had $550,000 in future lost wages given his permanent disabilities. In addition, the plaintiff was claiming medical expenses and seeking various other claims for damages from Belt Railway.

Again, two of the three defendants had already settled with the plaintiff for a total of $587,500. The third defendant, Belt Railway, suggest that the jury return a verdict of $338,000 for the remaining damages. However, instead the jury returned a verdict of $1,585,000 for all the damages. The Illinois FELA verdict breaks down as follows:

-$550,000 for future lost income,
-$20,000 for future medical expenses,
-$15,000 for disfigurement,
-$500,000 for past and future loss of normal life, and
-$500,000 for past and future pain and suffering.

However, the jury verdict of over $1.5 million will be offset by $587,500 due to the prior settlements made by California Northern Railroad and Gunderson Railway.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois FELA claims for railroad employees for more than 35 years in Chicago and surrounding areas, including Calumet City, Orland Park, and Evanston.

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