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BNSF mostly at fault for worker’s injury, jury finds

A Greene County jury has awarded more than $5 million to a 44-year-old former railroad worker injured in a 2015 fall at a Springfield rail yard.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. Bloomberg News file photo

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. Bloomberg News file photo

The 10 jurors deemed that defendant BNSF Railway Co. was 80 percent at fault in plaintiff James Mitchell’s claim that his fall was caused by a broken handrail. That accounted for the bulk of the $5.08 million judgment, according to court documents.

Mitchell, of Seymour in Webster County, was injured on Aug. 27, 2015 while working as a conductor in BNSF’s Springfield rail yard, said St. Louis plaintiff’s attorney Nelson Wolff. Mitchell attempted to climb down a railcar ladder when a defective handrail gave way, causing him to fall to the ground and land on his back, Wolff said.

The handrail had been damaged earlier that evening as a result of a derailment on the neighboring track, Wolff said. Attorneys for the rail company did not respond to a request for comment.

During the next 16 months Mitchell, who also goes by Jamie, required surgery on his lower back and shoulder, his attorney said.

“Despite multiple spine injections, Mitchell experienced ongoing pain and is permanently disabled from returning to his job at the railroad,” Wolff said.

In addition to the $5 million verdict, the jury awarded $80,000 to Mitchell for a separate claim related to an aggravation of his initial injury while trying to uncouple two rail cars in February 2017, roughly 18 months after the first incident. Each side was assigned 50 percent of the fault for the secondary claim.

At trial, BNSF denied liability and claimed that Mitchell was to blame, according to Wolff. Plaintiff’s expert witness Dr. Paul Olive testified that Mitchell will require multiple spine fusions in the future.

The jury reached the verdict on April 27 following a week-long trial.

$5.08 million verdict

Federal Employees Liability Act (FELA)

Breakdown: $5 million on first count, $80,000 on second count; plaintiff assigned 20 percent of fault on first count, 50 percent of fault on second count.

Venue: Greene County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 1631-CC00622/April 27, 2018

Caption: James T. Mitchell v. BNSF Railway Co.

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Andrew J. Scavotto and Nelson G. Wolff, Schlichter Bogard & Denton, St. Louis

Defendant’s Attorneys: Laurel Stevenson and Jeffery W. Laney, Haden, Cowherd & Bullock, Springfield

Judge: Michael Cordonnier