On January 14, 2014, a Hennepin County jury awarded a Canadian Pacific Railroad engineer $828,200 for injuries suffered while uncoupling a locomotive air hose. Minneapolis attorney William Kvas represented engineer Roger Wogstad, who was struck in the face by the coupler of a locomotive air hose. Canadian Pacific blamed Wogstad for failing to turn off the air to the hose before uncoupling the hose by hand. Mr. Wogstad missed little time from work in the three years after the accident before his treating doctor determined that he was a danger to himself and the public. Canadian Pacific called outside medical experts, but not their own medical director, to testify that there was nothing wrong with Wogstad and that he could continue working as a locomotive engineer despite impairment of his cognitive functions.
While medical experts hired by the railroad’s lawyers claimed that Wogstad could safely operate a locomotive engine, Kvas argued to the jury that even the railroad did not believe its lawyers. “If Canadian Pacific really believed that Mr. Wogstad could return to work, they would have called their medical director to tell you that. Instead, he is hid out in a bunker until this case is over.” Kvas continued, speculating on the possible motive: “They just want to have it both ways. They want to tell you [the jury] that he can return to work, but have their medical department free to claim that he is medically disqualified from working as an engineer.” The jury’s award suggests that it did not believe any of the medical witnesses hired by Canadian Pacific lawyers.
Given the recent catastrophes in the railroad industry nationally, Kvas commented on the irony of Canadian Pacific’s position. “Their lawyer told the jury that they don’t have a problem allowing brain injured engineers to operate their trains carrying hazardous freight – even if the engineer’s doctors feel there is a risk to the public. It is a sad commentary on the safety culture of Canadian Pacific. They are willing to take a chance, and the public just has to accept the risk and consequences.”
Responsibility for Wogstad’s injuries was the subject of debate at the trial. The railroad’s lawyers blamed Wogstad and told the jury that he was solely responsible for his injuries. The railroad tried to tell the jury that Wogstad mistakenly forgot to turn off the air hose before separating the hoses by hand. Evidence in the case showed that the process of having engineers disconnect hoses by hand existed only in Winona. A trainmaster who was trained in St. Paul testified he was trained not to separate the hoses by hand and instead separate the hoses by pulling the locomotives apart. The trainmaster said the instructors lectured the class on the danger of separating locomotive hoses by hand. Canadian Pacific could not explain why the safe procedure in St. Paul was not used in Winona.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Susan Burke presided over the trial.