There’s nothing like a wrench socket the size of a coffee mug to get across the point that the guys who fix trains use some really, really big tools.
Little Rock lawyer H. Chris Christy, a managing partner with the Houston-based firm Jones and Granger, keeps the socket, the 50-pound impact wrench it belongs to, and an assortment of other oversized railroad machinery around his office above an art gallery on President Clinton Avenue, ready to show visitors — and more importantly, juries — just how potentially dangerous railroad work can be.
It’s effective stuff, especially when it’s accompanied by a description of what’s left of Ken Harris’ right shoulder. After several years using those huge tools in what turned out to be ergonomically disastrous positions, Harris, a 40-year-old locomotive mechanic at Union Pacific’s North Little Rock shop, developed a chronic, painful condition called thoracic outlet syndrome.
"His chest started to atrophy, to depress in, because the circulation to his chest muscles was cut off by pressure on the nerves in his shoulder," says Chet Lauck, an attorney who works for Christy.
Christy adds: "If you took his shirt off, you’d see one side of his chest literally caved in."
That’s what a jury in St. Louis got to see last month, along with documents that Lauck says proved the railroad knew of ways to make Harris’ job safer, but chose not to do so.
The result: Although they asked for damages of up to $1.1 million, the jury awarded Harris almost twice that amount — one of the largest awards ever for a cumulative trauma injury under the almost century-old federal law that protects railroad workers.
The law, called the Federal Employment Liability Act, says railroads are required to provide safe work environments for their employees.
It’s been a specialty for the Jones and Granger firm for more than 50 years. As for Christy, he couldn’t have landed in a more appropriate area of the law: he’s the son and grandson of railroad workers, and spent a decade himself as a machinist for the Illinois Central railroad in Memphis while he put himself through college and law school.
"I thought I’d be a corporate attorney," Christy said. "A railroad at one point offered me a job. But I decided I didn’t want to represent corporations, I wanted to represent people."
Christy said he’s seen firsthand how dangerous railroad work is, and although he was never hurt on the job himself, his father had to have neck surgery for problems Christy now believes were caused by his job.
"I always thought of myself as a railroad worker first and an attorney second," Christy said. "I think that’s the reason for my success."
Christy started out in Jones and Granger’s Houston office, but was spending so much time in Central Arkansas — Union Pacific’s North Little Rock shop and railyard employs more than 1,100 workers — that the firm opened a branch here in 1992.
And although Christy, Lauck and the two other lawyers in their office sue on behalf of hurt workers, you won’t see their mugs on cheesy late-night TV ads. They only handle FELA claims, and come by their clients primarily through the dozen or so unions involved with railroad work. They file most of their suits in St. Louis, where Union Pacific’s headquarters are, but handle cases all over the country.
You also won’t find them apologizing for being "plaintiff’s attorneys," a label that’s taken on a negative connotation amid the debate on tort reform and medical malpractice suits.
"We’re proud of what we do," Lauck said.
Harris’ case was their first cumulative trauma case, but they’re now handling about 250 such cases, Christy said. Despite troubled economic times, the railroads are booming, and the industry overall has tended to drag its feet making the kind of ergonomic improvements that have become common in other sectors, Christy said.
Lauck said automaker Ford had eliminated use of the heavy, vibrating tools like the one Harris used by the late 1980s. And there were other fixes Union Pacific could have made, such as putting workers on raised stands so they didn’t have to hold the tools as high, or rigging up a suspension system to support the weight of the tools altogether.
"The railroads in these cases have always been penny-wise, pound-foolish in regards to these kinds of cases," Christy said.
The $2 million verdict in Ken Harris’ case wasn’t unreasonable based on a calculation of his potential lost wages, $50,000 a year for 20 years, Lauck said. They made the calculation assuming Harris wouldn’t be working for Union Pacific after this year.
But Harris hasn’t gotten anything so far. Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the company is still "reviewing the court’s decision," but Christy said he expects the railroad to fight the verdict on appeal, and in the meantime, Harris doesn’t get any of the settlement money. So for now, he’s still on the job, using the same machinery that caused his injury in the first place.
"He’s being real careful," Lauck said. "If he gives any indication to the railroad that he’s either unsafe to continue doing heavy work or shows an inability to do his duties, he risks being pulled from work, essentially fired," Lauck said. "Luckily he has some good co-workers, and they’re helping him."