Koopman v. Union Pacific Railroad

Two-second delay proves
equipment faulty, not worker

Problem: Steve’s client, Mr. Koopman was a brakeman working for Union Pacific Railroad in Eastern Oregon near Pendleton. He severely injured his back when he got on a moving locomotive from the ground to join the engineer and the conductor gathering more rail cars. The engineer and conductor were already seated in the locomotive and were moving through a switch.

Railroad rules required Mr. Koopman, as the brakeman, to watch the locomotive’s front wheels move into the correct position at the switch. That meant an automatic system would prevent the train from derailing should the switch move into a different position as the locomotive passed over it. Mr. Koopman confirmed the correct front wheel position while he was on the ground. He then got up on the train. As he walked along the catwalk, the engine derailed, causing him to fall hard. The railroad claimed that Mr. Koopman lied about confirming the wheel position and had caused his own injury because he violated the railroad’s work rules.

Solution: Like so many injury cases, things became technical. Steve traveled to Eastern Oregon. As he worked to understand how the derailment occurred, Steve delved into the switchyard computer systems. During Steve’s deposition of the Chief Assistant Signal Maintainer, the electrician for this switch yard, he discovered that the safety system for that switch had a 2 second delay built into its trigger. By carefully studying the computer records of the switching system, Steve proved the switch changed after the front wheels had passed over the switch, but before the rear wheels arrived, and that a safety defect caused the locomotive’s derailment. This also proved the railroad falsely accused Mr. Koopman of carelessness.

Result: By mastering the technical details that caused the derailment and resulting injury, Steve created a compelling argument of split second timing and bad system design. The case went to jury trial. The offer from the railroad to Mr. Koopman before trial was $24,500. The jury verdict was $475,000. Mr. Koopman continued to work for the railroad.