On July 23, 2015, a railroad switchman from Superior, Wisconsin was awarded $4.49 million dollars by a Hennepin County jury for injuries sustained while working for BNSF Railroad.
Aaron Larson sustained crippling injuries to his back when, on a snowy night of March 16, 2013, he was knocked onto the ground, striking his low back on the steel rail. Mr. Larson’s attorney, Cortney LeNeave said, “With the support of friends, family, co-workers, fellow National Guard members, medical providers and industry experts, Mr. Larson provided the jury with clear evidence supporting his FELA injury claim. They backed him up”.
Throughout the trial, BNSF attorneys attempted to label Mr. Larson as a liar and a lazy part-time worker who was not injured. They claimed that his problems stemmed from his National Guard injuries sustained in Iraq. The award suggests that the jury strongly disagreed with the BNSF assertions.
Post jury award smiles with attorney Cortney LeNeave (left) and his client Aaron Larson
On Wednesday, July 23, 2015, a Hennepin County jury restored the dignity of a young railroad switchman from Superior, Wisconsin when they returned a $4.49 million dollar verdict in favor of Aaron Larson against the BNSF Railway. Larson sustained crippling injuries to his back when an 80 pound piece of steel from a rail car fell into him, knocking him onto the ground and striking his low back on the rail. Larson filed an FELA claim against his employer, BNSF Railway for his on duty injury. Larson claimed the BNSF had neglected its responsibility to provide safe equipment and that the equipment was not in compliance with federal safety regulations requiring the coupling system to be operating properly.
The BNSF claimed Larson was not injured and that any of his problems stemmed from his National Guard injuries in Iraq. They also claimed it did not matter that the equipment was bad, defective or non-compliant even though it was safety equipment. The railroad claimed Larson was only a “part time” employee and, therefore, should not be compared to full time workers.
The facts showed Larson was working two jobs much of the time – his railroad job and his National Guard job where he was working hard to climb through the ranks. Larson served honorably in Iraq where he, and his Minnesota National Guard unit, assisted in training Iraqi police forces. They encountered enemy insurgents daily and appeared to be the target of the largest vehicle bombing to this day in the Anwar province. Larson witnessed the massive explosions just ahead of his convoy. He witnessed the devastating casualties first hand as he delivered first aide and secured the area.
Upon Larson’s return home from Iraq, he had to adjust to civilian life like many other veterans. His PTSD led to anxiety and depression, which affected his work. He let his supervisor at the BNSF know about his issues and his continued role and service in the National Guard. BNSF eventually threatened discipline and termination of Larson if he did not improve his attendance. Larson explained he was treating for his PTSD and working extra time in the National Guard to improve his rank and make sure young soldiers were ready for war. Military records show he was working in the guard or needing to lay off for guard duties 137 days in one year. There are 260 working days in a year. Like many who serve in our National Guard, Larson was challenged to meet both obligations – but he did- working both jobs. The railroad argued the jury should only consider his past railroad earnings in determining future losses – in short, giving the railroad credit for his service, not Larson. The jury sided with employee and veteran Larson and awarded all of his lost capacity and gave Larson credit for his military service.
The injury occurred on March 16, 2013. It was a dark and snowy night. Larson and his coworker were switching railcars into the various tracks in the Superior, Wisconsin yard. Larson was required to open a heavy steel coupler device on the end of a railcar in order for it to be able to couple into the next car automatically as the cars come together. Unfortunately, the coupling device, which allows employees to open the coupler automatically, was not working. Larson stepped in between the rails to manually pull open the device as he was trained and had done many times before. As he pulled the device it suddenly gave way, flew out and struck Larson causing him to fall over the tracks severely injuring his low back, leading to surgery by Dr. Timothy Garvey at the Twin City Spine Institute. Despite surgical intervention, Larson is limited in his employment prospects going forward.
Larson had the support of many friends and family through a tortuous fight for his life and dignity. The BNSF said it could not have happened as Larson claimed. In short, the BNSF tried to intimidate and scare Larson by suggesting he was a liar and lazy part time worker. The jury saw things differently when Larson called co-workers and fellow National Guard members to back him up. They had his back when the railroad was trying its best to take his legs out for good.
Larson was represented by Cortney LeNeave and Thomas Fuller along with the excellent assistance of legal professionals, Cori Viehman and Shelley Emick.