Andrew Barati v. Metro-North Railroad Co.: A Waterbury man was awarded more than $1 million after a federal jury decided his railroad employer had wrongfully retaliated against him for reporting an injury when fixing a track.
According to the man’s lawyer, it’s the first verdict in the country awarding punitive damages to an employee who was retaliated against by a railroad company since Congress enacted a new law in 2007 called the federal Rail Safety Act.
Andrew Barati, 48, began working for Metro-North Railroad Co. in Stamford in 2008 as a "track worker." Metro-North is one of the nation’s most heavily traveled commuter railways, linking New York City with suburbs in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York State.
During Barati’s training, the workers were instructed to lower the manual track jack all at once and not incrementally as required by statute.
Several months later, Barati was working on the lower level loop of Grand Central Terminal as part of an access project and was proceeding with his gang to change out some block ties and remove some rail. The workers had complained to their foreman that the lighting conditions were poor but the complaints weren’t remedied.
One day in April 2008, a jack failed and a rail tie fell on Barati’s foot, who couldn’t see well enough to realize his left foot was in harm’s way. Barati’s left toe was broken.
Metro-North disciplined Barati for violating company policy by failing to make sure his feet were in a safe place before releasing the trigger on the jack. Barati’s lawyer, Charles "Charlie" Goetsch, of Cahill, Goetsch & Perry P.C. in New Haven, said the real reason Barati was disciplined was simply for reporting the injury. He said the formal rule violation the company cited was for not following proper work procedure – a procedure Barati had not been trained to do, specifically to lower the track jack incrementally.
"In the railroad industry, the culture is that if you report a safety concern or injury it’s viewed as a challenge to the authority or power of management and instead of investigating the problem and solving any root causes to prevent future injuries, they turn around and retaliate against the individual," said Goetsch.
Goetsch said the law Congress passed aims to prevent such retaliation by railroad companies.
At a company hearing, coworkers and a line supervisor confirmed the poor lighting and training, and a union representative argued that Barati’s rights under the Federal Rail Safety Act had been violated. Regardless, Barati was fired.
Union officials continued arguing their case for Barati so the company relented and seven weeks later gave him an ultimatum, according to Goetsch. He could agree to a suspension without pay that could not be expunged from his record, or stay fired and wait for the result of an arbitration hearing.
Barati, who has a wife and twin daughters, elected to take his job back.
Barati hired Goetsch, who filed a claim under the Federal Rail Safety Act.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated, and found in June 2009 reasonable cause to believe that Metro-North violated the railroad safety law. Barati received back pay of $5,254. OHSA also said Barati should be given $75,000 for punitive damages.
OSHA said Barati had not operated a manual track jack except for a "couple of minutes" during orientation. In addition, OSHA noted the work site was insufficiently lit.
The next step in the process allowed Metro-North to appeal to an administrative law judge with the U.S. Department of Labor. However, the law allows plaintiffs to file a lawsuit in federal court, trumping the administrative proceeding. Barati and Goetsch decided to go to federal court in Connecticut.
The jury trial in federal court was de novo, or a fresh start. As such, the jury was not informed of OSHA’s ruling, explained Goetsch.
The lawsuit was essentially one count for personal injury and a second count claiming violations under the Federal Rail Safety Act. The trial took place in U.S. District Court in New Haven before Judge Janet Bond Arterton.
After six days of testimony and two hours of deliberations, the jury reached a verdict late last month.
With regard to the personal injury, Goetsch said the jury awarded $50,000 but said Barati’s negligence contributed 60 percent to the injury, reducing the verdict to $20,000.
However, under the Federal Rail Safety Act count, the jury was far more generous, awarding $40,000 for emotional distress, $1,428 for lost wages while attending the trial and $1 million in punitive damages.
"This is a game changer for railroads nationwide," said Goetsch, noting it was the first jury verdict under the Federal Rail Safety Act. "For the sake of retaliation they have sacrificed safety and it’s unacceptable to the public, as it should be," he continued. "This is exactly what Congress intended. This is the first … a one-million dollar message."
Beck Fineman, of Ryan Ryan Deluca LLP in Stamford, represented Metro-North. Fineman referred comment to Metro-North’s press office.
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the company was reviewing the verdict "with an eye toward appeal."