Court upholds $1.25M award to BNSF whistleblower

Written by Railway Age Staff
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Former BNSF Railway employee Michael Elliott was awarded $1.25 million by a federal jury in Tacoma. Photo courtesy Q13 Fox, Tacoma

A federal appeals court has upheld a $1.25 million award to a BNSF Railway whistleblower in a safety violations case.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict awarded in July 2015 to Michael Elliott, who claimed retaliation by the railroad, and that he was terminated for reporting safety violations to federal regulators.

The court rejected claims by BNSF Railway that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard to its efforts to show that Elliott, a 16-year locomotive engineer and a senior elected officer for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, was fired after he had engaged in misconduct.

The unanimous decision by the panel also found “substantial evidence” to support the jury’s finding that complaints that Elliott had made about safety concerns were a “contributing factor” to BNSF’s efforts to fire him.

That included evidence that a supervisor lured Elliott into a physical confrontation in a company parking lot, and then had him arrested and charged with assault. Elliott spent two days in jail but was acquitted in Pierce County (Wash.) court. The railroad used the incident to justify his dismissal.

Also, BNSF officials in Washington, evidence showed, colluded to provide inaccurate information to a mediator about whether Elliott had properly reported a prior criminal conviction. Elliott insisted he had, and BNSF supervisors intentionally misled the mediator, according to testimony at trial.

Elliott had reported complaints about overgrown vegetation blocking signals along BNSF tracks between Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash., along with signal malfunctions.

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