Power and Brugess pointed out Norfolk Southern’s internal rules require 14-foot track centers after reconstruction, which is more than the state regulation. “Our goal was to make it clear to the jury that these railroads are putting people in jeopardy by not following their own rules,” said Power.
By Ryan Watson
On Sept. 2, 2011, Michael Parsons, a 30-year-old conductor for Norfolk Southern Railroad Co., was reorganizing railroad cars. The switches in the area where he was working had been replaced recently, narrowing the distance between two previously parallel tracks. As Parsons was riding on the side of a rail car, it collided with another car parked on an adjacent track, shearing off his left heel.
Parsons received a skin graft, but his heel bone later died and was removed. He received a larger, bulky skin graft to cover the wound. He was unable to put weight on his foot for two years, and after he began using it again, the graft tore, resulting in multiple infections. He likely will experience similar problems for the rest of his life. The only permanent solution would be to amputate his leg below the knee.
Chicago attorneys John Power and George Brugess represented Parsons in his suit against Norfolk Southern under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act—the exclusive remedy for railroad workers injured on the job. Brugess argued that the railroad had created a dangerous condition in the rail yard, and Power argued that Parson’s injuries were severe.
After a nine-day trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $22.47 million. This included $19 million for Parson’s pain and suffering, $1.5 million for disfigurement, $1.5 million in lost benefits and earnings, and $474,102 for future medical expenses. The railroad initially offered only $1 million to settle. “They never took us seriously,” said Power.
The key issue at trial was twofold—first, whether Norfolk Southern had “reconstructed” the rail yard when it replaced several tracks switches in the summer of 2011; and second, what distance was required between the previously parallel track centers. At the time of Parson’s injury, only 10 feet and five inches separated the track centers.
The 51st Street yard was built more than a century ago with 12-foot track centers. A state regulation requiring 13 feet and six inches between track centers was later enacted, but the railroad argued that the rail yard was grandfathered out of that requirement because it was built earlier. Under Illinois law, however, a rail yard loses that protection if it is reconstructed; then it must comply with the regulation.
As Power and Brugess pointed out, Norfolk Southern’s internal rules require 14-foot track centers after reconstruction, which is more than the state regulation. “Our goal was to make it clear to the jury that these railroads are putting people in jeopardy by not following their own rules,” said Power.
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