A federal jury in Seattle has awarded a former BNSF Railway worker, and whistleblower, more than $1.6 million.
In 2010, Curtis Rookaird alerted federal officials that his employer had told him to forego an important brake test on a train carrying oil and hazardous materials. He was later fired.
Rookaird’s case came amidst heightened scrutiny for railroads as they began moving unprecedented amounts of crude oil throughout the country, including several trainloads per week to marine terminals and refineries in the Pacific Northwest.
The circumstances of his firing illustrate a trend within the railroad industry of retaliation for reporting safety concerns and injury reporting, according to current and former railroad workers, labor attorneys and railroad safety consultants.
It’s been six years since BNSF Railway fired Curtis Rookaird.
The Rookairds lost their home as a result. Curtis left to drive a truck in the oil fields of North Dakota to support his wife, Kelly, and their two boys.
“We were down to the last few dollars and I went to ND to go to work in 2012,” Rookaird said.
“On borrowed money,” Kelly Rookaird added.
“We borrowed money for me to get there,” Curtis said. “So, it’s been a struggle.”
But in court this week, the Rookairds were victorious. The judge ruled Curtis Rookaird was right to conduct that brake test over the objections of his supervisor and was wrongfully fired.
The jury described BNSF Railway’s conduct was “malicious and oppressive,” and awarded Rookaird to make up for his lost earnings and emotional stress.
Several others have won large sums from BNSF Railway for similar cases.
Mike Elliot, a former union safety official who worked for BNSF, was awarded $1.25 million last year after being fired for reporting unsafe track conditions north of Tacoma. Jen Wallis, a BNSF rail yard worker in Seattle, also won in court after she injured her knee on the job and said she was penalized by the railroad for reporting the injury.
It is not the first time a judge has ruled in Rookaird’s favor. The court ruling follows an administrative law judge ruling in 2013 from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which handles railroad whistleblower claims.
BNSF maintains Rookaird was fired justifiably and that it was not retaliation, spokesman Gus Melonas said in an emailed statement. The company has repeatedly pointed to the ruling of an arbitration panel that found Rookaird’s firing was justified.
“There was important information that was not presented to the jury,” Melonas wrote. “We are weighing our options as we study the jury’s decision.”
BNSF could appeal Rookaird’s case all the way to the U.S. supreme court.