A federal jury unanimously awarded $1.25 million to a railroad whistleblower, who was able to demonstrate that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) had wrongfully terminated him after he filed a complaint regarding safety violations.
BNSF locomotive engineer Michael Elliot found that overgrown vegetation was blocking the signal system along the BNSF-owned tracks between Tacoma and Vancouver, in addition to several other potentially disastrous signal malfunctions. According to the lawsuit, BNSF was slow to take corrective action. Consequently, in January 2011, after receiving no response, Elliot took his complaints to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The FRA subsequently performed a six-week inspection, during which the agency found more than 375 violations, including one that resulted in a $1000 fine.
Evidence presented at the trial demonstrates that BNSF officials made a concerted effort to set Elliot up for termination. One BNSF official, supervisor Dennis Kautzmann, was accused of planning a confrontation in the parking lot with Elliott. Kautzmann jumped onto the hood of Elliot’s car as Elliot was leaving, and an altercation ensued. According to court documents, this incident was used as a pretext to fire Elliot and have him charged with assault. A criminal court later dismissed the charges against Elliot.
BNSF officials later claimed that, while this parking lot incident was under internal review, they discovered Elliot’s alleged failure to report his earlier felony conviction for driving under the influence and vehicle assault. Officials at BNSF used this pretext to terminate Elliot for a second time. Court documents, however, indicate that Elliott had informed them of this conviction and that BNSF supervisors intentionally provided the mediator with false information.
As a result of the wrongful actions taken by the railroad company, Elliot was awarded $1 million in damages, including back pay, lost future pay, and $250,000 in punitive damages. Upon notice of this favorable outcome, Elliot was reportedly, and understandably, “ecstatic.”