LAS VEGAS - A federal jury returned a unanimous verdict of $5 million dollars in favor of an injured railroad worker against his employer, the freight-hauling Union Pacific Railroad.
According to court documents, on Dec. 9, 2012, Greg Gibbons, of Afton, Wyoming, was driving a truckload of ballast and pulling a trailer also loaded with equipment for Union Pacific. A converted railcar bridge also designed and owned by Union Pacific suddenly collapsed underneath him, dropping the full rig down the embankment approximately a dozen feet to the bottom of the ravine below.
Gibbons was taken in for medical treatment and eventually underwent a complex cervical fusion procedure to his neck.
The 43 year old truck driver retained the union designated law firm of Brent Coon & Associates and brought suit under the Federal Employer's Liability Act, claiming that Union Pacific failed to maintain the bridge and that they had improperly converted an old flatbed railcar into a bridge to save money without even testing it for load bearing capacity.
In the court documents, Union Pacific maintained that it wasn’t illegal to repurpose old railcars into bridges along the access roads and that they were not aware before the collapse that the bridge would fail.
The court documents record that BCA attorneys Brent Coon and Jim Morris argued that Union Pacific had a non-delegable duty to maintain the integrity of the bridge, that the rail car was a poor substitute for a real bridge, that it was never designed to be a bridge and that U.P. never tested it to determine maximum load capacity, nor had they posted any load limits at the crossing.
Court documents also mentioned that Union Pacific argued that the fall wasn’t severe enough to cause the injuries complained of, which included herniated discs to his neck, mid back and low back, and that the injuries were either old in nature or otherwise unrelated to the incident. They also argued Mr. Gibbons had no lost wage earning capacity because he remained gainfully employed with the railroad in the six years since the bridge collapse.
The jury unanimously determined that Union Pacific was negligent and that his injuries were related to the incident. They awarded Mr. Gibbons $5 million dollars in damages, a verdict 33 times greater than the pre-trial settlement offer.
"This case is about the bravery of our client in taking a stand against a big company and fighting to the finish for what is right, said Morris. “U.P. regularly uses old and abandoned railroad flat cars as bridge crossings, even connecting them together. They were not designed to be bridges and should not be used as bridges. This is a serious problem throughout the railroad industry and they get away with it because these bridges fall outside of the jurisdiction of regulatory authorities and requirements, notably the Federal Railway act.”
Gibbons, the client, stated: “First off, I want to thank both of my lawyers who were phenomenal and the jury that was awesome. In the future I hope this helps so that this doesn’t happen to someone else as it did to me. I want the railroads to do a better job to protect their employees, particularly in addressing serious issues with these railroad flatcars they convert to bridges. I was shocked in the trial to see how little is done to properly inspect and test them and it is a wonder this hasn’t happened more often.”
Coon added: “This incident is another example of the risks inherent in a lack of oversight of the railroad industry over this highly dangerous practice, which puts people's lives at stake. We will continue to assist national railroad worker coalitions to force the railroad industry to abandon this shady practice that is utilized only to save the industry the cost of building real bridges. And let’s not forget, if this particular bridge had a higher elevation or the ravine was full of water this matter would likely have resulted in a fatality. "
Greg Gibbons v. Union Pacific Railroad Company case No. 2:15-cv-2231