The plaintiff’s lawyer said the driver that caused the wreck in Columbus settled out, but Norfolk Southern was still liable for damages under the “any negligence” rule of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, which governs railroad workers.
A Columbus jury awarded $5.5 million to a locomotive engineer injured when a van taking him to the rail yard was hit by a car that ran a stop sign, leaving him with an injured spine and shoulder. The verdict was not against the at-fault driver—whose insurer settled—but against the plaintiff’s employer, Norfolk Southern Railroad, and the company it hired to transport workers. Because the railroad turned down an offer to settle for $1 million earlier this year, the plaintiff will seek attorney fees under Georgia’s offer of judgment statute, which says a defendant who rejects a settlement offer then loses at trial may have to pay attorney fees from the date of the rejected offer. “The tricky part of the case for the defense was that, because he worked for the railroad, we were able to travel under FELA [the Federal Employers’ Liability Act],” said attorney John Moss. Under the 1908 Act, railroad employees who are injured through any negligence on the railroad’s part are entitled to recover damages for those injuries as long as the employee is not at fault. “That meant we only had to prove the van driver was 1% at fault for his injuries,” said Moss, who tried the case with partner John Steel of Steel & Moss, which specializes in railroad litigation. Norfolk Southern and its contractor, Professional Transportation Inc., are represented by Glenn Tornillo and Kristin Yoder of Cruser, Mitchell, Novitz, Sanchez, Gaston & Zimet. They did not respond to a request for comment Friday. According to Moss and court filings, the plaintiff, Alejandro Matos, was one of three passengers being ferried in a PTI van along 17th Street in Columbus in 2015 when a woman driving a Chevrolet Cobalt attempted to stop at a stop sign on a side street, but instead crossed partway into the intersection. The Cobalt’s driver, Latisha Holley, saw the PTI van coming and stepped on the gas to try and make the crossing. She was instead T-boned by the van, which did not have a stop sign. Matos, now 52, underwent extensive medical treatment, including spinal fusion and rotator cuff surgery, and was declared medically unfit to return to his job as a railroad engineer. Holley was cited for the wreck. Matos sued Holley, Norfolk Southern, PTI and its driver, Inez Robinson, in Muscogee County State Court in 2017. “We settled with the at-fault driver and took the [uninsured/underinsured motorist] money, which was not nearly enough, and made the $1 million demand on Norfolk Southern,” Moss said. The defense did not respond and never made any offers, he said. During a three-day trial before Judge Andy Prather, the defense argued that Holley was the sole cause of the accident. Norfolk Southern’s portion of the pretrial order said Robinson’s van was only traveling at 30 mph, five miles below the speed limit, when she hit Holley’s car. Moss said there was video footage from the van showing Holley pull in front of it, “but that wasn’t a very nuanced view. We had an expert look at the video … the van driver saw the car in the road at least 3½ seconds before the accident. She admitted that she saw her and that she was too far out in the road, and said in a deposition that she braked from 30 to 15 mph. The truth was she never braked at all.” “Their argument was, ‘We’re going five miles under the speed limit, the other driver’s stopped at the stop sign, our lady has no idea she’s going to keep going. It’s not our fault,’” Moss said. “I get that, but we only have to prove a little bit of fault.” The plaintiffs claimed Matos had more than $900,000 in lost wages. He also had $360,000 in medical expenses, but those are recoverable under FELA, Moss said. On Oct. 10, after about an hour and a half of deliberations, the jury awarded $5.5 million in damages, “which was substantially more than we asked for,” Moss said. Moss said he did not speak to the jury afterward, but said it was likely sympathetic to his client, a Dominican Republic native and U.S. Army veteran “who came across as just a good, humble guy.” Moss said he didn’t think there would be grounds for any potential appeal. “It was a very clean trial, I don’t think there was an objection,” he said. “It was straightforward negligence case.“
Source: The Daily Report