On April 19th, a federal jury in Atlanta awarded our client Doug Burchfield more than $20 million for a 2005 accident that resulted in a double amputation of his legs. This monumental victory overturned a 2009 jury verdict that found the railroad wasn't liable for his catastrophic injuries.
At the time of the accident, Mr. Burchfield was moving the cars as part of his job with General Mills in Covington when a rail car with a faulty brake rolled down a hill and plowed into two other rail cars. All three cars rolled over him, severing his right leg above the knee and his left leg below the knee.
Initially losing the case to a defense verdict in 2009, we were given a second chance and a new trial after a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the original verdict and remanded the case.
The panel found that the trial judge had erred in allowing the first jury to view a video recreating the accident that was used by CSX to blame Burchfield for what railroad lawyers said was his failure to set the hand brake on the car that caused the accident. The appellate judges said trial testimony made it impossible to assess whether what the court acknowledged was a highly prejudicial video was fairly and honestly made. The same video was admitted in the second trial too but was not believed by the jury to be credible.
This case has been a long and tedious journey for both our firm and our client, given the details surrounding the incident. CSX insisted throughout the litigation that Mr. Burchfield never set the hand brake, which they argued was not faulty and would have held the car in place, even on a downhill grade. Because of the severity of his injuries that day, Mr. Burchfield retained no memory of the accident, although he always insisted that he had set the rail car's hand brake because it was his common practice to do so. The accident also resulted in the partial release of the hand brake after it had failed, making it appear as if it had not been set. We were able to show that the impact was the best explanation for the partial release of the handbrake – not the failure to apply it in the first place. Because of the lack of any hard evidence, we knew that proving the case was going to be a challenge.
Regardless of the setbacks, it became apparent early in the investigation that the hand brake, which was supposed to hold the railcar, was badly out of adjustment—in violation of federal law—and failed to hold the brake shoes in place against the rail car wheels. There was also an emergency air brake that initially locked the car in place that also gave out, and the rail car rolled down an incline, striking two other cars before rolling over Burchfield. We prepared our case by hiring qualified experts to investigate and replicate important factors surrounding that day, including several tests done on the original railcar.
Our experts found and testified that the rail car's hand brake was badly out of adjustment and that indentations and rust found in close proximity to the hand brake indicated that it had been out of adjustment for some time. Indeed, the shoes were not firmly against the wheels even after the brake was applied. One of our experts determined that CSX should never have delivered the rail car and that, given the questionable condition of the hand brake; it should have remained on flat ground with the wheels secured by wooden blocks or chains.
CSX introduced a video that purported to show that when the rail car's hand brake was engaged it would hold the car in place. We were able to show that when the video was made, the car had been modified. Before the video was made, photos clearly showed the hand brake's defects, including one piece of the braking mechanism that was striking the bottom of the rail car. In the video, some of the conditions apparent in earlier photos had been altered so that the hand brake would function.
As a result, our argument was, "If only CSX had adjusted the hand brake before it was delivered … and not when they made this video," the accident would not have happened.
In the retrial, in addition to using a different approach to the evidence, our team also employed a shadow jury whose members provided daily feedback to the lawyers on their impressions of the case. This time around, we had decided to take what we had and really embrace it.
Our case was strengthened by the fact that every single witness who testified for the railroad was impeached on one point or another. Some had changed their testimony from the first trial; others had altered their testimony since they had been deposed to reflect CSX's position that the hand brake was functional and safe. All the witnesses had, for reasons we don't know, become squirrely on their answers.
The jury—this time an almost even split of men and women, including a foreman who had master's degree in chemistry from Georgia Tech and was studying for a Ph.D.—understood the evidence we presented and just flat out “got it”. Jurors told us after the verdict that they didn't spend a lot of time talking about liability. They were focusing on damages and how to take care of Doug. Since the trial, we have also filed a motion seeking an additional $4.5 million in interest stemming from our original demand for compensation about five years ago.
This verdict has been a sweet end to a long and complicated journey, as well as an ideal outcome for a deserving client and a good friend. When we initially received this case from Mr. Burchfield, another law firm had already turned it down. Having several years experience in railroad and FELA cases, I felt that we had the resources and expertise necessary to help Mr. Burchfield win his case. In the end, it is nice knowing that Mr. Burchfield will now be able to receive the medical care needed to live a long and comfortable life.
Michael J. Warshauer
Michael J. Warshauer