Railroads can get away with lying to employees who try to settle personal injury claims without the protection of an attorney.
A stunning example is a new ruling from a Federal Judge in Minnesota.
Four employees of Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway filed a lawsuit alleging they were conned into accepting chump change for hearing-loss claims.
According to the Employees, they signed “Releases” – without consulting with FELA Designated Legal Counsel – because they believed lies told by the Railroad’s claim agents. But the Judge threw the case out because – even if the claim agents told some tall tales and big fibs to get cheap settlements – the Employees knew they were signing “Releases.”
A “Release” is the piece of paper that an injured employee signs when a case is settled, giving up the right to ask for more money. This document surrenders all claims against the Defendant, releasing the Railroad from any further liability for an accident.
The Judge in the Minnesota case explained that a Release would not be valid if the claim agents lied about what the Employees were signing. For example, if a claim agent tricked an employee into thinking he was signing a Birthday Card for a co-worker, and the document turned out to be a Release of personal injury claims, the Release wouldn’t be valid. But the Judge ruled that a Release is valid – even if the claim agents told other kinds of lies to the Employees – as long as the Employees knew they were signing Releases.
[An upcoming issue of Straight Track will explain other situations where a Release can be invalidated.]
In the Minnesota case, the Judge decided the Employees weren’t even entitled to a trial on whether they were conned by the claim agents, because the Employees admitted they knew they were signing Releases.
Each of the four Employees – “Duane,” “Ron,” “Robert,” and “Tom” – had hearing loss from exposure to excessive noise on the job.
Here, as recounted in a ruling by the Judge, are some of the lies that, according to the Employees, were allegedly told by three BNSF claim agents (“William,” “John,” and “Jeff”) to get the Employees to settle hearing-loss claims. [Note that the Judge assumed, for the sake of argument, that these allegations are true.]
Lies That Duane Alleges he was Told by William
Duane dealt with a claim agent named William. According to Duane, William convinced Duane to settle his hearing-loss claim for only $4,000 by telling him:
- William had handled and settled numerous hearing-loss claims and had extensive experience and knowledge concerning such claims.
- The Railroad had a “formula” for determining the value of Duane’s claim, and the formula applied to everyone.
- Retaining an attorney would not do Duane any good, because hearing-loss claims were “cut and dried”; the formula told what Duane would get, regardless of whether he had an attorney.
- The settlement offered by William was in Duane’s best interest, because it was the best Duane could get under any circumstance, given the fact that the formula applied no matter what.
Lies that Ron Alleges he was Told by William
Ron also dealt with a claim agent named William. According to Ron, William convinced him to settle his hearing-loss claim for only $3,000 by telling him:
- It was William’s job to be fair and honest with claimants.
- William handled and settled numerous hearing-loss claims and knew what he was doing.
- Ron would be treated the same as everyone else at BNSF.
- William was in Ron’s corner and would do the best possible for him.
- Time was running out for BNSF to pay any money to Ron for his hearing loss.
- Retaining an attorney would not be in Ron’s best interest.
- There was a formula for determining the value of Ron’s claim that was “system-wide” and applied equally to everyone, whether or not they had an attorney.
- The formula applied even if Ron had an attorney and, therefore, Ron would be wasting 25% of his money if he hired an attorney.
Lies that Robert Alleges he was Told by John
Robert dealt with a claim agent named John. According to Robert, John convinced Robert to settle his hearing-loss claim for only $1,200 by telling him:
- John had experience with hearing loss claims, and Robert could trust him.
- A chart that John brought with him to their meeting represented the amount Robert could receive in settlement of his claim.
- The chart applied to everyone.
- Even with an attorney, Robert would not be entitled to any more compensation, because the chart applied to everyone. Getting an attorney would be a waste of money, because the settlement amount Robert was entitled to receive was determined by the chart.
- Robert’s hearing-loss claim was “cut and dried.”
- John was doing “the best he could do for him.”
- The amount of the settlement offered by John represented a “fair settlement.”
Lies that Tom Alleges he was Told by Jeff
Tom dealt with a claim agent named Jeff. According to Tom, Jeff convinced him to settle his hearing-loss claim for only $3,000 by telling him:
- Jeff had handled many hearing-loss claims and knew what he was doing.
- The “American Medical Association” standards that Jeff was using applied to everyone on the railroad equally, whether or not they were represented by an attorney.
- The “AMA” value represented the “cap” on Tom’s claim. The AMA value was “it”; “this is all you can get.”
- A lawyer would not do Tom any good and would only take money for a fee, which was really Tom’s money.
The Friendly Claim Agents Pack of Lies
After signing Releases, Duane, Ron, Robert, and Tom say they found out that the claim agents told them a pack of lies, and that other workers with similar hearing-loss claims got “many times” the amount of money they received.
The Judge assumed, for the sake of argument, that the BNSF claim agents told the lies alleged by Duane, Ron, Robert, and Tom. The key fact, as far as the Judge was concerned, was that Duane, Ron, Robert, and Tom all admitted that they knew they were signing Releases.
It didn’t matter, the Judge explained, that the claim agents might have told lots of lies to con the Employees into signing the Releases. The Judge ruled that the Releases were valid because the claim agents didn’t lie about what the Employees were signing.
Since the Judge decided that the Releases are valid (even if the claim agents told lots of lies to get the Employees to settle cheap without consulting attorneys), the Judge ruled that Duane, Ron, Robert, and Tom can’t sue for more money.
So, as a Railroad Employee, do you need a personal injury lawyer when a friendly claim agent promises to give you a “great deal,” and swears that his offer is “the best” you can do? And do you need an train accident attorney when a claim agent says you’d be “wasting your money” on a lawyer?
No, you don’t need an attorney – as long as you don’t mind getting lied to and ripped off by a Railroad. But if you care about being conned by a claim agent, check with Hoey & Farina, your FELA Designated Legal Counsel, before signing a Release.