99% Fault Assigned to Injured Railway Worker in Smith v. CSX

Posted by msch on Aug 10, 2011 4:27:00 PM

Attorney Jamie Holland holding a Knucklemate, and Sedgewick attorney Ken WaterwaySmith v. CSX (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

Last week a Broward County jury found CSX Corporation (NYSE: CSX) responsible for a railway worker's back injury but also assigned 99% responsibility to the plaintiff, drastically reducing the amount of actual damages awarded.

Charles Smith suffered two herniated discs while connecting train cars in a depot operated by CSX, one of the largest rail and shipping companies in the United States. Smith was using his back to physically push the car couplings into place without the aid of any tools, which according to his attorney Jamie Holland of Wettermark Holland & Keith, resulted in a preventable injury eventually requiring spinal fusion surgery and the insertion of a metal rod into Smith's back. 
Holland, a former soap opera actor who appeared on "The Young And The Restless" and "Santa Barbara" initially asked the jury to award $950,000 in damages, claiming CSX failed to provide Smith with a wrench-like tool called a Knucklemate as an alternative to the more dangerous method of physically pushing the couplings together.

"We are suing CSX because they violated their own principles," Holland told the jury. "The rule states you're supposed to use a Knucklemate or a strap, but CSX never provided Knuckelmates and never provided straps."

Representing CSX, attorney Ken Waterway of the prominent national law firm Sedgwick LLP argued the technique in question, when properly performed, is both safe and widely used. "Nobody has told you its unsafe to move the coupler alignments with your back. That's why we still do it that way today," Waterway told the jury during closing arguments. 
In what may have ultimately led to the disproportionate assignment of responsibility in the verdict, CSX attorneys claimed Smith had an extensive history of back problems before the accident in the rail yard, and that he failed to disclose that to the physician who treated him after the incident.

An intake form from Smith's treating physician immediately after the incident showed he did not list any prior back problems of any kind, despite having suffered repeated back injuries over a 21-year career in the Coast Guard, some that required significant medical treatment. Waterway claimed Smith failed to properly align his feet prior to pushing the coupling, and that failure to correctly use a safe technique aggravated an already weakened back.

In the end, the fact a Knucklemate was not present on Smith's service locomotive the day of the incident likely resulted in the assignment of some fault to CSX, instead of the jury simply finding CSX not liable for Smith's injury. CSX admitted that although Smith could have called back to get one, a Knucklemate was not present on site that day.

After a one-week trial before Judge Jack Tuter, the jury awarded Smith $156,000, of which he will receive only $1,560 (1%).

Railroad Coupling

The case is Charles Smith v. CSX Trans Inc. CACE06009580

Topics: Negligence