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Eighth Circuit Affirms Order Splitting Responsibility for Workplace Injury – Rice v. Union Pacific RR Co.

By April 19, 2013July 17th, 2019Personal Injury

As a Missouri personal injury attorney, I was interested to read about a workplace injury case involving a split in responsibility between the worker’s employer and the third party who owned the railyard where he was injured. Jody Clark was a switchman for Union Pacific, for whom he moved train cars and parts in and out of a Gunderson Rail Services-owned railyard. After he seriously injured his back, Clark eventually filed for bankruptcy. His trustee, M. Randy Rice, sued Union Pacific under the Federal Employers Liability Act, the railroad equivalent of workers’ compensation law. The underlying case was settled, but Union Pacific and Gunderson disputed whether each should pay half, or Gunderson should pay the full amount of the settlement. In Rice v. Union Pacific RR Co., the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an order for each to pay half.
Clark was part of a three-man crew hauling parts to and from the Gunderson railyard for Union Pacific. On the day of his injury, his crew went to the yard to move three Union Pacific cars that had been left there over the weekend. A crewmate hooked up the first car to an engine, but Clark noticed that the other cars had been decoupled. Standing water and mud hid his view of the track. As he attempted to recouple the last car, he slipped in the mud between railroad ties and seriously injured his back. His bankruptcy trustee’s subsequent lawsuit sought benefits under FELA, the Federal Railroad Safety Act and the Federal Safety Appliance Act. Union Pacific had an indemnity contract with Gunderson, so it filed suit seeking full indemnity from Gunderson. Clark settled with both parties, but a dispute arose over whether Clark would be paid before or after the corporate indemnity issue was settled. The district court ordered it paid and proceeded to an indemnity trial, where it found Gunderson liable for only half.
Union Pacific appealed the order, as well as an order that Gunderson pay only half of Union Pacific’s attorney fees and costs. Gunderson’s cross-appeal argued that the settlement had already covered attorney fees and costs. The Eighth Circuit ultimately upheld the trial court’s decisions. The contract between Union Pacific and Gunderson specified that Gunderson must pay the full amount of losses attributable to the movement of rail cars on the track, which Union Pacific claimed was the cause of Clark’s injuries. However, the evidence that Gunderson was responsible for decoupling the cars was circumstantial, the Eighth said. Thus, it declined to find the trial court’s decision on the issue clearly erroneous. It also rejected Union Pacific’s argument that it deserves indemnity because Gunderson failed to comply with workplace safety standards set out in their contract. Again, the trial court found that Union Pacific failed to prove that Gunderson violated any specific safety standard, and the Eighth declined to overturn that finding. The attorney fee arguments were rejected because Union Pacific was not a “prevailing party” under Arkansas law, but Union Pacific’s contract entitled it to the costs of enforcing its indemnity agreement.
As a St. Louis injury lawyer, I particularly appreciate that the trial court ordered that Clark should be paid before the indemnity dispute was settled. It’s an unfortunate fact that serious injuries frequently lead to financial trouble. In this case, Clark ended up in bankruptcy. Though his injury isn’t detailed, the fact that it was “serious” and the fact that Clark had been doing physical work beforehand suggests that his injury put an end to his employment in that kind of work. Thus, Clark was likely making no income after his injury—while also racking up medical bills. This is a common problem for the clients of our southern Illinois personal injury attorneys. That’s why we work hard to make sure every medical bill our clients receive and every other cost of their injuries is documented and claimed in their lawsuits. By seeking fair compensation for serious injuries, we can help our clients make ends meet while they’re out of work or retraining and get the care they need.

Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who were seriously hurt because of someone else’s carelessness. If you’d like to tell us about your case and discuss how we can help, call today for a free consultation at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email.
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