ARLINGTON For 6 1/2 years, Curtis and Kelly Rookaird feel their lives have been derailed by Burlington Northern Sante Fe. But Curtis said he hopes a federal judge will stop them in their tracks next month.
The Rookairds recently won a $1.66 million lawsuit against BNSF, but you wouldnt know it by listening to them.
Its so big; the evil empire, Kelly said of BNSF. They think theyre above the law. Its hard to believe we got a verdict.
The Rookairds lost everything when Curtis was dismissed from his job as a BNSF conductor Feb. 23, 2010. They lost their dream home in Snohomish worth about $1 million. It had a swimming pool and a 1,200-square-foot, high-ceiling living room. It had a tree fort for sons Roman, now 11 1/2, and Reese, 11, whom they had just adopted from Russia. They used to ride go-carts on the three acres.
The Rookairds had to sell a one-of-a-kind Mustang for next to nothing, Kelly said. Plans were dropped for a Suncadia cabin. Theres no longer money in the bank for the boys college. They even had to borrow money from the First Presbyterian Church of Snohomish.
If not for a complete stranger, Colleen Byrum, who heard about the case 2 1/2 years ago, we would have been homeless, Kelly said. Byrum set up an online GoFundMe account that raised a few thousand dollars, without which they wouldnt have gotten into the home theyre in now. That rental in Gleneagle is dilapidated, the oldest in the development, Kelly said. Our entire lifestyle was thrust away from us, she said.
The Rookairds havent been able to help the boys with special needs as much as they would have liked, Kelly said. We struggle to pay the bills, she said, adding they can only afford medications periodically.
They have been selling items, such as Curtis wedding ring and a family heirloom, just to make ends meet, and Kelly had to put off eye surgery. They said they even could have lost their boys back to Russia because of their financial woes. On top of all that, Curtis said they owe their lawyers $500,000.
They had to go on welfare. He couldnt find anything for a job, Kelly said, adding being a conductor is not a position people job-hop from. Its a thing you retire from.
Eventually Curtis was retrained and got a commercial drivers license. He now drives tanker truck, delivering jet fuel in Seattle.
Its one-third the pay and more dangerous, Kelly said.
Rookaird was working near Seattle in 2010 when he and two other crew members were instructed to pick up 40 Hazardous Materials cars containing propane and butane residue. They decided they needed to perform a transfer train air brake test.
Kelly interjected, Safety should always come first.
They were contacted over the radio by a supervisor, who questioned why the test was being done, but didnt give them specific orders, Kelly said.
He wanted them to just push the cars along, Kelly said.
At the time, Curtis said he and his co-workers thought, It was the craziest thing, a trap. He said BNSF sometimes tests workers like that to make sure workers are doing their job right. So he, the brakeman and engineer continued to test the brakes.
But BNSF officials ordered all three home before they could complete their shift. Following a 13-hour investigation, BNSF fired Rookaird and issued record suspensions to the other two one year for the brakeman and three for the engineer.
Curtis said BNSF claims the trio was milking the job for overtime because they had just been switched from 12- to eight-hour shifts and that we were upset because of our new financial hardship.
In court, Rookaird contacted the Department of Labor in 2010. Following a three-year investigation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that BNSF had violated administrative law by firing Rookaird because of the air brake safety test. The DOL ordered that Rookaird be immediately reinstated and awarded damages of approximately $136,000.
If BNSF would have accepted that ruling, the Rookairds would not have lost the house. Actually, because of the ruling, they were able to hang on to it for four more years because the mortgage company figured at some point it would get its money. However, during foreclosure, the house was bought out from under them.
Kelly blames BNSF. They just wanted to stall paying, she said.
So the Rookairds contacted one of the best whistleblower lawyer firms in the country, Yaeger and Jungbauer, which moved the case to federal court.
Last month, a jury awarded the Rookairds $1.66 million. That included $200,000 in punitive damages because the railroads actions were malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of (Rookairds) rights.
Kelly is worried their fight isnt over. BNSF has indicated it is disappointed in the verdict and is contemplating an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
Curtis doesnt think the case will go to appeal. He said the judge, who has 26 years experience, knows the case well.
He said BNSF claims it wasnt able to present all of its evidence at trial, but he wasnt either. Its edited. Certain things are thrown out. There are 8,000 pages of evidence, he said.
Curtis said the issues with BNSF are political. There are not enough federal rail inspectors, he said. As a result, BNSF has to look like it regulates itself. By making moves like dismissing Curtis, it looks like BNSF is watching its employees. Many have lost their jobs that way, he said. If federal inspectors were more involved there would be citations.
Another problem is management bonuses. If railroad cars dont move, higher-ups can lose that performance money, he added.
Curtis said his whistleblower case could lead to many ex-employees getting their jobs back.
Kelly went to Washington, DC, and testified with several others about BNSF to the DOL. OSHA has since come up with a program that if there are three whistleblower complaints against anyone they are put on a naughty list, Curtis said.
Curtis, who worked for the railroad for six years, said he became a conductor after just 15 weeks of training, which he said is scary. It takes years to really learn that job.
They dont care about their employees, he said. Do you think they care about their communities?