Jurgens v. BNSF: A Case of Railroad Industry Safety and Liability
In June 2019, a Bismarck jury handed down a verdict that makes a statement about railroad industry safety and liability.
At the age of 18, Cary Jurgens started working for BNSF Railway, where he was employed his entire adult life. On August 7, 2017, Jurgens fell while servicing an industry in Jamestown, North Dakota. He reinjured his knee, which required surgery and subsequently cut short his railroad career. In court, BNSF questioned the validity of Jurgens’ claim and asked the jury to grant him no monetary damages. The jury disagreed with BNSF and issued a $560,845 verdict after a weeklong trial.
Jurgens filed a suit under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). He alleged that BNSF failed to provide a reasonably safe workplace, because the walking conditions in the area were steep, made of loose mainline ballast, and were not compliant with industry standards. In addition, Jurgens asserted that weeds in the walkway constituted a tripping hazard.
As soon as Jurgens disclosed his injury, BNSF took immediate action in self-preservation. Within two hours of the report and even before Jurgens was out of the hospital, 16 different members of BNSF management personnel were embroiled in the matter.
By the time the trial ended on June 21, BNSF had spent about $200,000 on experts. Among them was a video specialist, who claimed that Jurgens had not fallen but instead faked his accident. The allegation arose when BNSF found surveillance video from a nearby gas station that did not show Jurgens falling. The footage, however, didn’t thoroughly document the area where Jurgens said he fell, as the camera’s vantage point was obstructed by trees for about 12 seconds.
Additionally, BNSF paid almost $100,000 to medical experts, who commented on the total knee replacement Jurgens had a few years prior to the accident. Those experts emphasized that two or three months before Jurgens’ August 2017 fall, a surgeon suggested that Jurgens undergo a procedure to address intermittent pain.
BNSF also argued that it had no duty to comply with its own engineering rules and standards. The company ascertained that its safety regulations only apply to new construction, not existing structures. The tracks were first put into place in 1928. A lot has changed since that time, though, and for railroads to assume that 90-year-old safety standards should be the enduring constant creates extreme dangers for workers today.
BNSF was quick to point out that no written complaints had been made, and the track inspection records showed no defects. However, another conductor had verbally requested to have a walkway installed in the area.
Furthermore, the track inspector who testified on behalf of BNSF was discredited at trial. He admitted to having no knowledge of the process practiced when switching duties are performed. The inspector examined only a small area of the railroad ties, because he said that’s where he assumed train crews walked in the presence of moving equipment on the tracks. He also stated that the shoulder is all BNSF asked him to check.
At trial, BNSF expressed its belief that Jurgens’ account was untrue and asked the jury to award him nothing. The jury, however, found that BNSF did not follow its own walkway standards – the same guidelines recognized by the rest of the industry – and therefore was negligent. Moreover, BNSF was found in violation of a federal regulation that requires walkways to be free of vegetation.
With its verdict, the jury made a statement to BNSF that safety has changed a lot since 1928 and that railroad workers deserve better. The railway company was ordered to compensate Jurgens for his injuries, awarding $560,845 in damages.
If you or someone you know has been injured in a railroad accident, contact the attorneys of Bolt Hoffer Boyd today. Our railroad injury team provides legal aid and advice to victims across the country.