Union Pacific puts up more of a legal fight over spider bite lawsuit

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Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 12:00 am

Union Pacific is biting back.

A decade after being sued and told to account in court for a mosquito bite, the Omaha-based railroad giant faces a similar lawsuit by an employee who says he was bitten by a spider in a Louisiana motel room.

In addition to fighting the bite claim, Union Pacific has charted another course: It has filed a lawsuit of its own against the motel, saying it breached its contract to provide safe accommodations for U.P. employees.

The railroad is not acknowledging that the spider bite happened — it uses the word “allegedly” throughout court documents. However, U.P. suggests that if the worker was bitten, it was the fault of the motel, not Union Pacific.

In essence, U.P. is covering its bases in an attempt to limit, or eliminate, any exposure it may have, said Richard Dinsmore, an Omaha attorney who is not involved in this lawsuit but has litigated several workers' claims against railroads.

The spider bite lawsuit was filed in January in Arkansas. Union Pacific filed its lawsuit this month in Douglas County District Court against the company that provides lodging — Corporate Lodging Consultants Inc.

The railroad argues that CLC, under its contract with Union Pacific, agreed to “hold harmless Union Pacific from any and all liability for injuries to Union Pacific employees” on motel premises.

The lodging company, based in Wichita, Kan., has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.

According to court documents:

Jeff A. DeLoney, an engineer for Union Pacific, operated a train from North Little Rock, Ark., to Monroe, La. Under federal regulations, he was required to rest between that trip and his trip back to North Little Rock.

At 2 a.m. Feb. 7, DeLoney fell asleep at the Super 8 motel in Monroe, La.

He “awoke at 6 a.m. with excruciating pain in his middle finger on his right hand,” DeLoney's attorneys wrote in a lawsuit. “Plaintiff was bitten by an insect spider.

“As a result of the bite, plaintiff suffered severe pain and swelling requiring medical treatment and surgery. The bite subsequently developed a severe infection ... causing severe, painful and disabling bodily injuries.”

Union Pacific and other railroads have been down these tracks before. High courts have consistently found that railroads must provide a “reasonably safe place to work” — as outlined in the 1908 Federal Employers Liability Act. The question for the courts is whether the railroads could have reasonably foreseen that employees could be in danger.

Other cases brought under FELA have involved insects, including one in which a railroad worker was stung by a bee on railroad property that was overgrown by vegetation, and others involving several rail workers who contracted Lyme disease, an illness carried by ticks.

Then there was the mosquito case.

A former U.P. conductor said she was bitten by mosquitoes on Union Pacific property in Wyoming in 2003. She subsequently contracted West Nile virus and was unable to work.

Vivika A. Deviney sued Union Pacific, alleging that the railroad failed to adequately warn employees about the danger of West Nile virus and failed to address standing water on or near its properties.

Union Pacific fought the lawsuit, and a Douglas County District judge dismissed the claim, saying it was unrealistic to expect the railroad to protect employees against mosquito bites.

However, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the judge should have allowed Deviney to present her case to a jury.

The case was sent back to Douglas County and subsequently was settled out of court. Dinsmore, one of the attorneys for Deviney, said he could not disclose the terms of that settlement.

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