Pillars v. BNSF Railway Co.

May 9, 2013 – Norwalk Superior Court, Norwalk, CA

A Norwalk jury has found in favor of BNSF Railway Company in a lawsuit brought by a BNSF employee who claimed she suffered job-related injuries stemming from an incident dating back to 2008.  Plaintiff Selina Pillars sued BNSF under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), and the Federal Safety Appliance Act, which govern work-related injury claims against interstate railroads, in place of traditional state worker’s compensation laws.  Unlike state laws, the federal laws allow employees to sue railroads and recover damages if they are able to prove fault on the part of the railroad.

Plaintiff Selina Pillars was represented at trial by Anthony Petru and Victor Russo of the law firm Hildebrand Mcleod & Nelson LLP, who have sued BNSF and other railroads in numerous similar lawsuits. 

James Yukevich and Cristina Ciminelli from the law firm of Yukevich Cavanaugh represented BNSF. 

Ms. Pillars worked as a conductor for the BNSF Railway Company since 2004.  Ms. Pillars alleged that on September 29, 2008, she was hurt while attempting to apply a wheel-type manual hand brake on an intermodal rail car at BNSF’s Hobart rail yard in Commerce, California.  Ms. Pillars told the jury that as she felt the hand brake tightening, it suddenly released, causing her to feel pain in her lower back. Pillars complained of debilitating pain and eventually decided to undergo spinal fusion surgery, with insertion of metal hardware.

Plaintiff presented evidence that the sudden release of the hand brake, or "slippage" was a characteristic of the brake that rendered it inefficient in violation of the Federal Safety Appliance Act.  Plaintiff also argued that BNSF was negligent in failing to enforce rules pertaining to the operation of vertical hand brakes in light of BNSF's knowledge of slippage.

Attorneys for the defense pointed out that it is commonly known to both Ms. Pillars and all of BNSF’s rail yard employees of the potential for hand brakes to slip while being applied.  The hand brake’s design is standard in the railroad industry, and can be found on millions of rail cars traveling throughout the United States.  BNSF employees are well-trained and prepared to anticipate this slight slippage, and no injury from the slippage is possible if the employee uses proper procedures and body mechanics.  The defense argued that Ms. Pillars disregarded her training and applied the hand brake using an improper technique.  

BNSF’s defense lawyers also pointed to the lack of any objective evidence of Ms. Pillars’ injuries.  While Ms. Pillars subjectively complained of back pain, her MRIs and X-Rays revealed a completely normal spine for a woman of Ms. Pillars age, with no evidence of any trauma or structural damage.  Defense lawyers argued to the jury that Ms. Pillars no longer had any interest in working for the railroad, despite her ability to do so.

The jury deliberated for approximately 3 hours before returning a complete defense verdict in favor of BNSF.

"We are very pleased with the jury's findings and thankful for their hard work," said defense counsel Jim Yukevich of Yukevich | Cavanaugh.  Although the "issues were difficult, ultimately the jury made the right decision."