A Georgia man sues a freight rail company. He says he was fired for reporting safety violations
A Southeast Georgia man has filed a federal lawsuit against a major freight rail corporation, claiming that he was fired in part for reporting safety violations to federal regulators.
In a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Chase Highsmith of Waycross says that CSX Transportation terminated his employment as a carman and railroad car inspector in 2021 because he engaged in federally protected activities under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.
Among those activities, Highsmith says, was a series of complaints he made to the Federal Railroad Administration that CSX and its managers violated safety laws by — among other things — knowingly allowing railcars with inoperable brakes to depart its Waycross hub without being repaired.
A spokesperson for CSX declined GPB's request for comment.
The lawsuit comes amid a time of tense labor disputes in the U.S. freight rail industry, with a possible nationwide strike looming by rail workers of several Class I railroad companies, including CSX.
Highsmith — who wrote that he worked for CSX from 2012 until his termination in February 2021 — also alleged that CSX knowingly released “bad order railcars from the shop that had not been repaired” and allowed trains to depart the Waycross hub, known as Rice Yard, without a required brake test.
“Mr. Highsmith's refusal to overlook and not report safety hazards in outbound trains was a source of irritation for [CSX] management,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed by Birmingham, Alabama-based attorney F. Tucker Burge.
The lawsuit states that a CSX trainmaster wanted Highsmith fired because he reported too many “bad order cars,” and that a CSX foreman ordered Highsmith to notify him every time that Highsmith identified an outbound train carrying one of these cars.
Such a “personal notification requirement” for bad orders (also known as “BO”) was not one that the foreman imposed on other inspectors, according to Highsmith.
The lawsuit goes on to describe a text message exchange between Highsmith and a CSX foreman in the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 2020, the day on which Highsmith says he worked his final shift as a CSX employee.
During that shift, Highsmith writes that he discovered broken draft gears on two railcars, rendering them unsafe to depart Rice Yard. He reported the defects using a handheld device and informed the foreman via text message:
Highsmith: Two BO in 453 broken draft gears both cars.
Foreman: What is going on?
Highsmith: Nothing just a day like the rest
Foreman: Whats that mean?
Highsmith: Don’t understand every time I get BO y’all think I’m mad or something is wrong
The following week, CSX wrote a letter to Highsmith stating that the company had received information that he had been watching YouTube videos on a company computer while Highsmith had been ordered to inspect the head end of a train, resulting in a delayed departure of that train.
But the following month, Highsmith says that a formal disciplinary hearing established that he was not watching YouTube videos at that time, but rather inspecting another railcar that he had been assigned to. He wrote that the YouTube-viewing occurred during his meal break.
The disciplinary hearing against Highsmith also established that the inspection order had been given to all of the outbound car inspectors and not to Highsmith specifically, and that the inspection was eventually completed without causing a delayed departure.
“Not only did the members of both teams believe that the other team had performed that inspection,” the lawsuit states, but that the lead carman “closed out that inspection order because he too believed that the inspection had been performed.”
Highsmith states that CSX did not bring disciplinary charges against any of the other inspectors who were working that shift.
“Mr. Highsmith had a perfect record as a carman on operational testing of rule compliance before being removed from service on December 10, 2020, and later charged [by CSX for disciplinary reasons] and terminated. He was observed for rule compliance more than a hundred times and found to be in compliance each time. Mr. Highsmith had zero failures.”
Highsmith is demanding a jury trial, and is seeking to be reinstated at CSX with a level of seniority that he says he would have achieved “but for the discrimination.” He is also seeking punitive damages of $250,000, backpay with interest, and compensatory damages, among other relief.