In Griebel v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, the ARB affirmed an award of $100,000 in punitive damages to a former Union Pacific employee who alleged that his employment was terminated because he reported a work-related injury.
Under the Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA), employees in the rail industry are protected against retaliation for disclosing an alleged violation of federal laws and regulations related to railroad safety and security or for reporting hazardous safety or security conditions, reporting a work-related injury or illness, or refusing to work under certain conditions. Under the FRSA, a prevailing whistleblower can recover:
- back pay (lost wages and benefits);
- compensatory damages, including emotional distress damages;
- punitive damages of up to $250,000; and
- attorneys’ fees and costs.
Punitive damages are awarded where there has been “‘reckless or callous disregard for the plaintiff’s rights, as well as intentional violations of federal law.’” The ALJ’s award of $100,000 in punitive damages was driven by the following facts:
- Griebel was discouraged from filing an injury report, and then coerced in to report the injury not as an on-duty injury.
- 70% of employees who report an injury are subjected to discipline.
- Union Pacific disfavors its employees consulting with a “FELA attorney” prior to the filing of an injury report.
- Two days after filing an injury report, Griebel was pulled from service and charged with dishonesty based upon suspicion rather than hard evidence.
- Union Pacific never had a company attorney review the case to determine whether the Complainant’s legal rights under the FRSA were being properly observed, or the possible ramifications of its actions in dismissing the Complainant.