BNSF CONDUCTOR WINS $1.1 MILLION JURY AWARD
On March 20, 2008, a jury in Tacoma, Washington awarded BNSF Conductor Robert Ainsworth $1,174,204.00 in damages for injuries stemming from a February 2005 incident in Buckley, just 25 miles southeast of Tacoma. Mr. Ainsworth felt a sudden twinge of pain in his low back while throwing a derail switch on a storage track. After finishing his shift, Mr. Ainsworth reported the back pain as required by BNSF rules and then sought medical treatment.
Mr. Ainsworth’s doctors started him on a routine course of epidural steroid injections that did not relieve the pain for more than a few weeks at a time. He had disk surgery to lessen the back pain, only to develop more pain in his hips a few months later. A specialist diagnosed bilateral avascular necrosis in both hips, a condition that results in the death of bone tissue. Several medical journals report avascular necrosis as a rare but known complication of steroid therapy. After conservative treatment failed, Mr. Ainsworth underwent bilateral hip replacement surgery.
Mr. Ainsworth’s injuries prevented him from returning to work as a conductor. Just six weeks before trial, the BNSF suggested he could work “security,” though no formal job offer was ever made. Settlement discussions followed but were unsuccessful. At the time of trial, Mr. Ainsworth had not yet returned to any type of work.
Mr. Ainsworth sued for both the back and hip injuries, arguing at trial that “but-for” the on-the-job back injury, he would not have needed the epidural steroid injections that caused his hip injuries. He further argued the hip problems made it unlikely he would be able to return to work as a conductor. The BNSF said Mr. Ainsworth only had a minor disk bulge and that his hip problems were unrelated to his work.
The BNSF hired a forensic orthopedic surgeon who testified that epidural steroid injections are a very common treatment for back injuries like Mr. Ainsworth’s. He further testified that Mr. Ainsworth’s hip problems were not caused by these injections. The expert testified that there were no reported cases in the medical literature of steroid injections causing avascular necrosis. This was proven false during cross-examination at trial.
After deliberating only six hours, the jury decided in favor of Mr. Ainsworth. Mr. Ainsworth had worked for the BNSF for over 14 years at the time of the incident. Attorney Fred Bremseth, representing Mr. Ainsworth, tried the case to a jury for four days in federal court.