Samuel F. Belcher's colleagues called it in over their radios when his behavior caused delays during a late-night shift: The train conductor was "acting funny," they said, staggering and showing signs of confusion at a Hamlet, North Carolina, station in January 2012.
Minutes later, when Belcher was supposed to send the cars off the main track toward the maintenance yard, the experienced conductor instead misaligned two switches, causing the train to derail.
"On those transmissions you hear railroad employees saying. 'Who's that crazy conductor? He's walking like he's lost. He doesn't seem to know what he's doing,'" plaintiffs counsel Charles "Chuck" Baumberger of Rossman Baumberger Reboso & Spier said.
What they were witnessing, Belcher's Miami lawyers would later argue, was the onset of a stroke that would end the 56-year-old conductor's career.
But it was what happened next that helped cinch Belcher a nearly $2.1 million verdict from a Florida jury. Plaintiffs lawyers say that instead of seeking emergency care for Belcher based on his confusion, impaired speech and difficulty walking, his supervisors at CSX Transportation Inc. "made a medical decision" to hold the employee for more than five hours, preventing him from getting help.
"They just kept him there to test him and the engineer to see if they had been drinking or under the influence of drugs," Baumberger said. "Throughout the entire time, the engineer testified Mr. Belcher continued to have problems and get worse."
Belcher had worked a 10-hour shift, beginning at 11:30 a.m., running a train from South to North Carolina. His lawyers say his symptoms were apparent at around 10:15 p.m., minutes after arriving at the Hamlet yard. At that point, Belcher, who is diabetic, told his supervisors he felt confused and thought his blood sugar level had dropped, according to court documents. He remained at the train yard until about 3:30 a.m. for testing, until company officials sent him home by van—a five-hour commute, according to his attorneys.
"By 6:30, he had left-sided facial droop and weakness on his left side," Baumberger said. This prompted colleagues to take Belcher to an emergency room, where doctors diagnosed him with a stroke.
Belcher filed a single-count complaint in January 2013 claiming negligence under the Federal Employers' Liability Act for the defendant's alleged failure to provide a safe workplace.
Jacksonville-based CSX is a real estate and railway firm that operates under company and Federal Railroad Administration policies that require drug testing after a derailment or major accident. It denied Belcher suffered a stroke at work, and argued he was not confused after the derailment and did not want medical attention while he awaited drug testing.
CSX rebutted Belcher's claims with arguments of comparative negligence, claiming the conductor had experienced similar symptoms while shopping one day earlier. Belcher had suffered a stroke two years prior, and should have recognized the symptoms when they re-occurred in 2012 on the day before he caused the derailment, CSX argued through defense counsel, Andrew J. Knight and Jeffrey Yarbrough of Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones in Jacksonville.
The defense argued Belcher had failed to get medical attention the previous day to stave off further injury—a factor that contributed to his later symptoms. It claimed that failure—and not railroad procedure—resulted in Belcher's latest stroke, which caused mild residual damage.
The conductor claimed about $500,000 in lost wages and lost earning capacity. CSX countered he still had the ability to work at jobs outside his former position but had decided not to seek other employment to mitigate his losses. It offered a $500,000 settlement, but the case went to trial.
After a 10-day trial in June before Duval Circuit Judge Tatiana Salvador and about 5.5 hours of deliberation, jurors returned a nearly $2.1 million verdict for the plaintiff. They found Belcher 50 percent responsible for injuries, but awarded $501,338 for past lost wages and lost earning capacity and $1,588,142 for intangible damages.