In this whistleblower case, a federal jury has awarded a former employee $1.66 million after being fired. The employee says he was fired for taking proper safety measures. The company says he was fired for insubordination and lying.
Curtis Rookaird worked as a conductor for BNSF Railway.
On Feb. 23, 2010, Rookaird conducted an air-brake check on 40 train cars with residues of propane and butane.
BNSF was under pressure to meet a schedule, and company supervisors questioned whether the safety check was necessary.
Rookaird was fired after the incident. Now a federal jury has awarded him $1.66 million in lost wages and damages because the railroad retaliated against him for carrying out the safety check. The award is expected to go somewhat higher because it is also ordered to include Rookaird’s attorney fees.
The railroad says Rookaird’s dismissal was due to insubordination because he got into an argument with a supervisor on Feb. 23. BNSF claims Rookaird also submitted a request to be paid for time he didn’t work.
“They were in a hurry to get the job done,” Rookaird told KOMO news.
BNSF “wouldn’t tell the truth and they put profits over safety,” said William Jungbauer, an attorney for Rookaird told the Seattle Times.
The former conductor took his case to OSHA which investigated under a federal whistleblower statute.
OSHA found the preponderance of evidence showed the brake test contributed to Rookaird’s firing and ordered him to be reinstated. BNSF appealed to federal courts.
After the jury verdict, BNSF said it stands by Rookaird’s firing and it’s reviewing its options.
This isn’t BNSF’s only whistleblower run-in with OSHA. In 2013, OSHA reached a settlement with BNSF to address alleged violations of the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act. The railroad agreed to change several safety and personnel policies. OSHA said the policies discouraged its workers from reporting injuries. As part of the agreement, BNSF denied any liability or wrongdoing.
Congress has expanded OSHA’s whistleblower authority to protect workers from retaliation under 22 federal laws. Complaints must be reported to OSHA within set time frames following the retaliatory action, as prescribed by each law.
OSHA has put more funds and emphasis into its whistleblower program.
Rookaird’s case is one of the larger payouts involving just one employee.