Union official: NS lawsuit against employees over derailment is ‘crazy’

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A view on the aftermath of a March 18 train crash in Georgetown, Ky. Norfolk Southern is suing two of the railroaders for negligence in the crash that destroyed two locomotives, derailed 13 freight cars, and injured four railroaders.
Tyler Hardin
LEXINGTON, Ky. — A labor union official says Norfolk Southern’s lawsuit against two railroaders following a head-on collision in Kentucky earlier this year is “crazy.”

John Risch, national legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, says he believes the lawsuit against the two railroaders will never succeed and if it did it would set a dangerous precedent.

NS filed a lawsuit earlier this month in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky alleging that Engineer Kevin Tobergte and Conductor Andrew Hall failed to stop at a signal near Georgetown, Ky., on March 18. That failure, NS alleges, put the men’s train in the path of another causing a collision. Four employees were hurt in the wreck.

In years past, a crew that failed to stop at a signal and caused a major wreck would probably lose their jobs. But Risch says suing the crew is a bridge too far.

"It's outrageous behavior by Norfolk Southern,” Risch tells Trains News Wire. "They're going to have to start paying railroaders $1 million or $2 million annually so they can pay for when their employer sues them."

Risch says a railroad suing an employee over a mistake at work is not unheard of, but as far as he knows, none of those cases have ever succeeded.

Dennis R. Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, wrote in February that the increase of lawsuits and criminal cases against railroaders is concerning to him. Three former Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway employees stood trial recently for their involvement in the fatal 2013 oil train disaster in Quebec and an Amtrak conductor was charged after a fatal derailment in Philadelphia in 2015.

“In the wake of recent dramatic and highly visible railroad accidents in the United States and Canada, there has been a trend to criminalize railroad workers and prosecute them as the sole cause of these tragedies,” Pierce wrote.

Mike Blaszak, an attorney who specializes in railroad legal issues and is a long-time Trains correspondent, says lawsuits against railroaders are rare for a number of reasons.

“The reasons you don't see such suits very often are that employees generally do not have sufficient assets to offset the cost of the suit, they can declare bankruptcy to avoid any judgment, and such suits can have a devastating impact on the morale of the employer's other employees,” Blaszak says.

Risch says relations between management and labor has always been tense in the railroad industry but that it seems to have gotten worse in recent years. He says he hopes that changes in the future.

"I want an environment where railroaders are not living in fear of losing their jobs or worst getting sued and being forced into bankruptcy,” he says.
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