A federal jury Thursday awarded more than $1.6 million to a former BNSF Railway employee from Arlington who was fired six years ago after he conducted a brake test in Whatcom County over the objections of his supervisors.
The big-dollar judgment in U.S. District Court in Seattle is the latest ruling to go against BNSF over dismissal of employees who had sought to relay safety concerns or had been injured while working for one of the nation’s largest freight railroad companies.
“BNSF got their butts kicked because they wouldn’t tell the truth and they put profits over safety,” said Wiliam Jungbauer, an attorney for plaintiff Curtis Rookaird.
Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, said, “We are disappointed in the decision that was reached regarding Mr. Rookaird’s dismissal … BNSF takes whistle-blower allegations very seriously and we maintain that Mr. Rookaird’s dismissal was justified.”
The verdict was one of the largest in the nation awarded to a former BNSF employee over a firing.
Rookaird’s firing followed a Whatcom County incident on Feb. 23, 2010. Then a conductor, Rookaird carried out an air-brake check on 42 train cars, many of which were “placarded hazardous tank cars” with residues of propane and butane, according to Jungbauer.
BNSF was straining to meet a schedule, and another BNSF employee questioned whether the check was necessary. Rookaird also later called a BNSF hotline and contacted the Federal Railroad Administration to relay safety concerns.
BNSF attorneys maintained there was no retaliation, and that the federal reporting had nothing to do with his dismissal.
In a trial brief, they said Rookaird’s dismissal resulted from insubordination as Rookaird got into an argument with a supervisor later on Feb. 23. He also failed to work efficiently and submitted a dishonest request to be paid for time he did not work, the attorneys said.
BNSF officials note the firing was upheld by an industry arbitration panel.
Melonas said Thursday that “there was important information” that was not presented to the jury, and that BNSF is weighing its options following the verdict.
Jungbauer said the verdict was one of the largest in the nation awarded to a former BNSF employee over a firing.
The judgment includes lost wages and damages, and is expected to go higher because it also awards attorney fees.
BNSF got their butts kicked because they wouldn’t tell the truth and they put profits over safety.
Wiliam Jungbauer, attorney for plaintiff Curtis Rookaird
Rookaird now works as a truck driver delivering jet fuel in the Puget Sound area, according to his wife.
“It is even more dangerous than the railroad, and half the pay,” said Kelly Rookaird, who said the couple lost their house after the BNSF firing.
BNSF’s personnel policies in recent years have come under federal scrutiny.
In 2013, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration reached a settlement with BNSF to revise policies that allegedly violated whistle-blower provisions of the federal safety act and dissuaded workers from reporting on-the-job injuries.
In that settlement document, BNSF agreed to make settlement offers to 36 employees who had filed whistle-blower complaints.
Also in 2013, an OSHA ruling found “the preponderance of evidence” showed the brake test contributed to Rookaird’s firing, and ordered him to be reinstated. The railroad appealed that decision.
Other BNSF cases that have ended up in federal court in Washington include the dismissal of Mike Elliott, who said he was targeted and terminated after reporting safety violations.
Last July, Elliott was awarded $1.25 million by a federal jury in Tacoma.
Elliott said this week that BNSF has appealed that verdict and he has yet to receive any money.
“They are all about delay, delay, delay,” Elliott said.