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Railroad worker wins suit over fall from ladder

A jury awarded $3.2 million to a 21-year employee of Union Pacific Railroad Co. who was fired after he fell 12 feet from a crane ladder to the train tracks and reported his injuries to a federal work safety agency.

Mark Larsen, 54 and a two-time employee of the year at Union Pacific, missed a rung on the ladder while climbing down and landed on his back on Dec. 15, 2010. Besides back and neck injuries, crushed blood vessels leaked 2 liters of blood into his peritoneal cavity, the space outside the organs in the abdomen.

After the accident, he filed a personal safety injury with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration against the wishes of his supervisor, said his attorney, Christopher H. Leach of the Hubbell Law Firm in Kansas City. Railroad officials discourage workers from reporting their injuries lest it prompt more federal oversight, Leach said.

The day Larsen received a release from the company’s doctor to return to work, Union Pacific fired him for alleged misuse of a company truck. A company official said fuel receipts showed he purchased gas at so many different places that he must have used the truck for non-work activities, Leach said.

“Once he got hurt, they just turned on him,” Leach said.

“This was simply a good, honest, hard-working man who told the truth about what happened to him.”

Larsen then sued Union Pacific for negligence under the Federal Employers Liability Act and other federal laws governing railroad companies. The suit, filed in Buchanan County Circuit Court in 2013, alleged the company has an unsafe workplace, fails to inspect its work methodologies for safety and doesn’t properly warn employees of hazards.

Craig M. Leff of Yeretsky & Maher in Overland Park, Kansas, represented the railroad. He said Union Pacific doesn’t comment on litigation.

The defense arguments included that Larsen had never complained of unsafe conditions before his accident and fell from his own equipment, not theirs.

The defense motion for summary judgment said Larsen, by his own admission, had climbed up and down the crane ladder several times without incident the day of the accident. He told the company he never felt like he was in danger, the motion said.

At the December trial, the company said Larsen fell from his own 4-foot ladder he used to get to the crane’s base, Leach said. However, that ladder was on the side of the crane. Coworkers found Larsen on his back in between the tracks, Leach said. The company also claimed Larsen exaggerated his injuries, Leach said.

At the time he was fired, he made $107,436 a year in salary and benefits.  Larsen’s attorneys asked for nearly $3.2 million to settle the case. Union Pacific offered $25,000.  In closing arguments in trial, Leach asked the jurors to award Larsen more than $5 million in economic and noneconomic damages, but they returned with $3.2 million.

Union Pacific has filed a motion for a new trial.

Now, Larsen, who lives in St. Joseph, helps his wife manage her rental properties. He is otherwise unemployable because chronic pain makes him unreliable for coming to work and requires him to take pain medication, Leach said.

The company’s motion for a new trial says Larsen failed to show enough evidence that his injuries would force him into lower-paying work and reduced benefits, curtail his leisure activities and he would continue to suffer future pain.

“In light of this minimal evidence, the jury’s verdict was astronomical,” the motion says.

$3.2 million verdict

Federal Employers Liability Act

Venue: Buchanan County Circuit Court

Case number/date: 13BU-CV02109/ Dec. 19, 2014

Judge:  Randall R. Jackson

Plaintiff’s experts: Terry Cordray, Shawnee, Kansas (vocational rehabilitation); Dr. Allen Parmet, Kansas City (occupational medicine); Stan V. Smith, Chicago (accounting damages, economics); Keith Vidal, St. Louis (engineering)

Defendant’s experts: Dr. David J. Clymer, Leawood, Kansas (orthopedic surgery); Rick Sabel, Topeka, Kansas (surveillance)

Caption: Mark Larsen v. Union Pacific Railway Co.

Plaintiff’s attorneys: Christopher H. Leach, Hubbell Law Firm, Kansas City; Wes Shumate and Scott Bethune, Davis, Bethune & Jones, Kansas City

Defendant’s attorneys: Craig M. Leff and Christopher Confer, Yeretsky & Maher, Overland Park, Kansas