$5.5 Million Settlement for Metro-North Railroad Worker

Connecticut Post, Thursday, March 11, 2004

JEFFREY PIEGER'S last thoughts on March 5, 2002, were of his wife and three young children.

The Metro-North machinist struggled to his feet with the help of co-workers and asked them to telephone his wife, Michelle, at her mother's house, just moments after a rail car pinned him against a wheel grinding machine in Metro-North's New Haven yard.

"Jeff was a big man, 275 pounds," said George Cahill Jr., one of the lawyers with Cahill, and Perry of New Haven that represents Pieger's estate. "His chest was crushed in to about 3 inches. He knew he wasn't going to make it. He wanted to tell his wife how much he loved her and their children."

Pieger, who was 36 when he died, never got that chance. He died 25 minutes after the accident.

But on Wednesday, Cahill and his partner, Charles , hammered out a record $5.5 million settlement for the family with Metro-North.

The attorneys believe this will provide for Jeff's wife and three young children as Jeff would have wanted.

"There's no amount of money that could make up for the loss of a husband and a father," Cahill said.

"This settlement comes [near] the second anniversary of Jeff's death." Michelle Pieger said. "I just feel he's still watching over us."

The settlement is believed to be the largest ever reached in a federal case brought under the Federal Employees Liability Act for a wrongful death.

Metro-North admitted no wrongdoing in settling the case just a day before jury selection was to begin before U.S. district Judge Stefan R. Underhill in Bridgeport federal court. The trial was to start March 22.

The settlement also occurred just hours after Robert Ard Jr., 46, of Fairfield, a 28-year conductor, was crushed to death at Metro-North's Stamford rail yard Tuesday night.

Dan Brucker, a spokesman for Metro-North, declined to comment on the Pieger settlement.

Cathleen Ann Giannetta and William Cobb, lawyers with Landman, Corsi, Ballaine and Ford, the law firm representing Metro-North, failed to return calls for comment.

Borth sides met with U.S. Magistrate Judge William I. Garfinkel Friday in Bridgeport in an attempt to settle the case. However, the final agreement was not reached until Wednesday morning.

It must now be approved by the Probate Court in West Haven where the Pieger's lived at the time of his death.

Pieger's death came five years after a similar accident resulted in the amputation of Herbert Renert's legs following an accident at the Stamford Metro-North Yard.

Following the Renert accident, Metro-North formed a committee they named the Renert Committee to study and recommend how to safely move cars in and out of repair shops, according to .

The committee recommended and Metro-North spent $225,000 to purchase a Shuttle Wagon to move the cars at the New Haven yard.

However, on the day of the fatal accident, the wagon was not being used. Instead, the cars were being moved by a motorized device called a capstan, pulling the cars by rope.

"There's no excuse for that," said Cahill. "If it was used, he'd be alive today."

Pieger's work involved grinding a railroad car's steel wheels to correct cracks from normal operation. He had only been on the job for nine months.

Pieger was in a pit ensuring that the car's wheels lined up with the grinding machine. After grinding one wheel, Pieger and a second worker were moving the next wheel into place when the car rolled forward and an extended portion, called a third-rail shoe, pinned Pieger against the wheel-cutting machine.

His lawyers said Pieger was pounding on the side of the car because of the excruciating pain.

"Jeff's 40 years' future life expectancy was crushed into 25 minutes of mortal agony," said . "Twenty-five minutes of excruciating physical pain from his broken ribs, torn diaphragm and internal bleeding. Twenty five minutes of knowing that his life was rapidly melting away. Knowing he would never see his wife and children again and knowing he would never kiss and hug them to say goodbye."

Once he was in the ambulance, Pieger told the EMTs about the pain and was able to respond to their questions by nodding his head before finally losing consciousness. He was pronounced dead at Yale-New Haven Hospital, according to his lawyers.

Cahill & Perry settled the Renert case for $7 million dollars.