A Douglas County District Court jury has awarded a former Union Pacific train conductor $900,000 after a 2010 derailment that left him injured and unable to work.
Loren Sweley, now 68, of North Platte, Nebraska, sued Union Pacific after the January 2010 derailment in Columbus, Nebraska. Sweley’s lawsuit said the train was traveling at about 50 miles per hour when it struck a bulldozer performing night construction work on the unlighted track.
Sweley and the engineer, who settled his claims with Union Pacific out of court, were trapped in the wreckage, said Randy LeNeave, Sweley’s attorney. Sweley’s claims included “severe and permanent” spinal injuries requiring extensive surgery that fused some of the vertebrae, LeNeave said.
“It was terribly traumatic and caused career-ending injuries,” said LeNeave.
Omaha-based Union Pacific declined to comment on the outcome of the case, spokesman Mark Davis said.
Personal injury litigation remains a major issue for railroads, even as the safety of the nation’s tracks has improved. At Union Pacific, the personal injury rate has fallen by 45 percent in the past decade or so, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The company paid out $89 million in personal injury claims in 2013, according to SEC filings, a decrease of 8 percent from 2012. Union Pacific incurred 2,705 new claims in 2013, little changed from 2012.
The Sweley trial started Oct. 27 and ran through Oct. 30, LeNeave said. The jury deliberated a little more than four hours, he said.
Sweley’s suit contains a description of the accident, which happened at about 8 p.m. on a foggy winter night:
“Suddenly and without any verbal or written warning or track warrant warning of any work being performed in the Columbus Yard, a heavy piece of equipment in the form of a dozer suddenly appeared through the fog straddling the main line track directly in front of the train,” the suit says. “There was no time to slow the train and it crashed into the dozer resulting in injury and damage.”
In all, 22 cars derailed, LeNeave said. The men on the train, LeNeave said, had only about 200 yards in which to react to the looming obstacle. It can take a mile or more to stop an average freight train of about 100 cars traveling at those speeds, he said.
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