Published: Saturday, June 20, 2009
By Ed Stannard, Register Metro Editor
Four railroad workers who were injured on the job but claimed retaliation by Metro-North have been awarded $75,000 each in punitive damages, the first awards under a 2008 federal law protecting rail employees.
Ralph Tagliatela of West Haven, a rail station custodian, was one of the four who won a ruling by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The other three were from Waterbury, the Bronx, N.Y., and Hopewell Junction, N.Y.
The workers were represented by Charlie of Cahill & Perry in New Haven, a specialist in railroad law. said the awards set a precedent in an industry in which those who are injured are met with punishment.
"There is a management culture of retaliation on the railroad," said Friday. "If you report a safety violation or injury, it's perceived as an attack on management and they retaliate."
said his firm represents workers from Amtrak, CSX and New Jersey Transit, but at least 20 complaints are from Metro-North employees. "Metro-North has the most; I can say that categorically."
The Metro-North commuter railroad is run by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The New Haven Line operates under an agreement with the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
The Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act, enacted in 2008, prohibits railroad management from interfering with injured workers' medical treatment or disciplining them for reporting or seeking treatment for an on-the-job injury.
In addition to $75,000 in punitive damages, each injured employee was awarded up to $10,000 in compensatory damages, lost wages plus 6 percent interest and attorneys' fees. Their disciplinary records were expunged.
According to OSHA's report, Tagliatela, 60, has worked as a custodian for Metro-North since 2000. On April 12, 2008, he twisted his left knee while working at the Mamaroneck, N.Y., station. He felt some discomfort, but worked the last two hours of his shift.
At 3 a.m., Tagliatela awoke in severe pain and went to Milford Hospital, where he was joined by his supervisor, Maria Kazik. X-rays were taken and Tagliatela was treated for a sprained knee. He later underwent surgery for a torn meniscus and sprained ligament.
Although injured employees are required to report to Metro-North's Occupational Health Service Department in New York immediately after an injury, Tagliatela's doctor told him he should not make the trip until he was re-evaluated April 18.
OSHA's report states, "According to Complainant he began to receive harassing phone calls from several individuals on or about April 14, 2008, demanding that he report to OHS despite his doctor's instructions to the contrary."
Tagliatela then was given a five-day deferred suspension and his injury was changed from occupational to non-occupational, increasing his out-of-pocket costs, because Metro-North claimed he had not reported the injury immediately and had failed to report promptly to OHS.
"I'm really happy that OSHA cleared up a lot of things, and hopefully will help a lot of people down the road on Metro-North," Tagliatela said Friday. "Their practices aren't the best when it comes to injuries. They kind of push you aside."
In the other three cases, Larry Ellis of the Bronx injured a shoulder while cleaning a train car; Andy Barati of Waterbury broke his big toe when a rail tie fell on his foot; and Anthony Santiago of Hopewell Junction strained his back when a chair he sat in broke.
In a statement, Jordan Barab, acting U.S. assistant secretary of labor for safety and health, said, "Railroad employees have the right to report occupational injuries and illnesses without fear that doing so will negatively affect their jobs, their health or their income. Retaliating against employees for exercising this basic, legally protected workplace right is unacceptable."
Metro-North responded in a prepared statement: "The decisions were received late Thursday and we are in the process of reviewing them. We will then determine the appropriate course of action in each matter. We believe our position was appropriate and are disappointed in the decisions."
Metro-North can appeal within 30 days. If the company does not comply with the award, the employees can go to federal court, where jury can award up to $250,000, said.
Ed Stannard can be reached at email@example.com or 789-5743.
Note: This article was reprinted with the kind permission of the New Haven Register newspaper , New Haven, CT.