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Whistleblower case upholds contributing factor standard on appeal

The Federal Rail Safety Act protects whistleblowers who work for railroad companies in Connecticut and elsewhere. The act recognizes that workers should have the right to report problems without fear of retaliation from employers. A recent ruling by a federal appeals court has affirmed the contributing factor standard in a case involving a railway employee protesting his dismissal after making an injury report. The standard states that a worker's protected conduct needs only to contribute to an employer's choice to punish the worker.

The case arose after a mishap during a repair operation that unexpectedly exposed the worker to a speeding train. He survived, but the trauma resulting from the near-miss prompted him to report that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. The railroad company cited him for violating safety rules but did not discipline other workers on his crew. Not long after this incident, he was cited for another safety violation and dismissed.

At his initial trial, the jury sided with the employer, but the plaintiff's legal team appealed on the basis of problematic jury instructions. The judge had told the jurors that the employer would not be liable for terminating his employment if the managers had honestly believed that the man broke safety rules. The panel of appellate judges, however, disagreed with the honest belief approach and pointed out that the law clearly did not require whistleblowers to show that their conduct acted as the sole motivation for adverse employer reactions.

A railroad employee concerned about reporting an injury or complaining about unsafe conditions may opt to consult an attorney. Legal advice might inform the person about whistleblower rights. The employee may learn what conduct the law might protect before proceeding with a complaint. If the person has already suffered retaliation, then an attorney might prepare litigation against the employer.

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