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Court upholds judgment against Union Pacific in railroad worker's death

Court upholds judgment against Union Pacific in railroad worker's death

The Texas Court of Appeals has affirmed a $1.2 million judgment awarded to the family of a railroad employee who died from complications after being injured on the job.

Mr. Gutierrez worked 28 years as a carman repairing and maintaining Union Pacific railcars in Houston, according to Union Pacific Railroad Co. vs. Estate of Geronimo Gutierrez et al. In May 2007, he fell four feet while climbing on a railcar and broke his left leg.

He underwent three leg surgeries and was released from the hospital a week after his accident, according to court filings. A few days later, he died from a brain hemorrhage caused by anti-clotting medication prescribed by doctors treating his leg injury.

Mr. Gutierrez's family and estate filed suit in Harris County, Texas, court in December 2009 against Union Pacific under the Federal Employers Liability Act. They argued that a decades-long drainage problem at Union Pacific's rail yard in Houston created muddy conditions that led to his fall.

Union Pacific argued that Mr. Gutierrez had taken a prohibited shortcut to climb onto the railcar when he fell. Additionally, evidence presented during trial did not show mud on the railcar or on Mr. Gutierrez's boots, according to court records.

A jury found Union Pacific negligent and awarded $1.19 million in damages to Mr. Gutierrez's estate and family. Union Pacific appealed.

In its unanimous ruling Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Texas Court of Appeals affirmed the jury verdict. Under the federal law, which allows railroad employees to sue for occupational injuries caused by employer negligence, plaintiffs need to prove only that “negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death,” the court said.

Attorneys suing on Mr. Gutierrez's behalf “presented evidence of a longstanding drainage problem ... that the area in which Gutierrez worked was muddy on the day of the accident, that it had rained earlier in the morning of Gutierrez's shift, that there was mud on Gutierrez's boots, that he slipped and fell from the ladder, and that the nature of his injury was consistent with a fall from a height,” the court said in its opinion.

“When faced with alternative theories of causation, it is not our job to decide which theory is more plausible; instead, as long as there is an evidentiary basis to support the jury's conclusion, its verdict must stand,” the Texas court ruled.

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