During 2001 and 2002, Mr. Pottroff took aim at the railroad industry’s long standing practice of systematically destroying evidence in accidents where members of the public suffered serious injuries or death. Three verdicts in the span of just over one year resulted in courts condemning this practice and juries awarding verdicts in excess of $40 Million: Stevenson v. Union Pacific Railroad ($2M); Barber v. Union Pacific Railroad ($30+M); and Morris v. Union Pacific Railroad ($8M). This series of cases caught the attention of Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times, who was doing research for a series of stories on railroad safety. The series ultimately won Walt Bogdanich the Pulitzer Prize and Mr. Pottroff the satisfaction of knowing his work in the courtroom and with Mr. Bogdanich would bring about change in the railroad industry.
In 2003, Lewis Laska, publisher and editor of the FELA Reporter and Railroad Liability Monitor, wrote that “[Mr. Pottroff] is simply the best railroad crossing lawyer in the United States.” In a 2004 brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the Union Pacific Railroad advised that Mr. Pottroff’s verdict against the Union Pacific in Barber v. UPRR “is by far the largest punitive damages award ever upheld by an American court in a railroad grade crossing case.” In late 2004, the New York Times and The Discovery Channel jointly ventured a one-hour documentary titled “Trouble on the Tracks.” This documentary featured Mr. Pottroff in his battle for public safety at railroad crossings. In 2005, Mr. Pottroff was presented the Consumer Advocate Award for the landmark case of Ryan v. Koehler International, Inc.
Mr. Pottroff’s article “Perilous Crossings” was published in Trial Magazine in April 2006. The article examines the need for attorneys to utilize both state laws and federal regulations to defend clients’ rights in railway crossing accident cases. Throughout 2006 and 2007, Mr. Pottroff served as president of the Kansas Association for Justice. In August 2007, Congress adopted and President Bush signed into law the 2007 Preemption Clarification Amendment. Mr. Pottroff worked hard on this legislation that overturned cases which denied citizens their right to hold negligent railroads accountable for damages in court.
On June 13, 2008, an Anoka, Minnesota, jury handed down a $24 million verdict against the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. Mr. Pottroff was brought into this case to represent the families of four young adults killed in a railroad accident. This record setting verdict was just the beginning of a legal saga that would follow over the next several years of post trial proceedings and appeals.
Following the tragic Chatsworth, CA, Metrolink 111 crash that killed 26 people and hospitalized over 140 others on September 12, 2008, Mr. Pottroff flew to Washington D.C. He met with Congressman James Oberstar, Chairman of the Transportation Committee, worked on extensive rail safety legislation. In late 2008, Oberstar led the effort in the House to pass The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 and the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. These Acts increased funding for Amtrak over the next five years and required new safety measures designed to reduce crashes through the use of technology and basic system safety principles.
On October 15, 2009, District Court Judge Ellen Maas of Anoka County, MN, issued orders imposing sanctions, fees and costs against the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad of approximately $4.5 million. The Court pointed out a “staggering” pattern of misconduct. The Court also recognized the effort of Bob Pottroff and his co-counsel in holding this railroad accountable for gross misconduct. The Court stated: “It was only through the dogged determination of Plaintiffs’ counsel and through their repeated and costly motions to compel discovery, that this Court began to see a pattern of behavior on the part of BNSF that raised serious questions about the intentions and veracity of BNSF regarding its handling of critical evidence in this case.” This extraordinary case has been well chronicled in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, up to and including the journey through the appellate courts that ultimately upheld the record setting verdict and sanctions.
In 2010 Mr. Pottroff joined forces with Mary Alexander of San Francisco to investigate an accident that claimed the life of 15-year-old Anthony Rea under circumstances that his young friends described as a signal failure. Caltrain and Amtrak denied the malfunction, blamed the victim and attempted to discredit the stories of his friends who saw the accident. Again, through sheer determination, Mr. Pottroff was able to uncover concealed evidence that established the truth about the fatal signal failure. This determined effort allowed the family to obtain the closure they so desperately needed.
In October and November of 2012, Mr. Pottroff was engaged in jury trial in Gaston County, NC. This trial involved the death of two women killed at a crossing with a long history of unresolved signal malfunctions. During the trial, Mr. Pottroff convinced the Court that evidence was being concealed and the Court ordered the Norfolk Southern Railroad corporate representative to turn over his laptop computer for forensic examination during trial. Thereafter, the railroad admitted that there was evidence on that computer which had been previously withheld. This evidence exposed the railroad’s cover-up. As Mr. Pottroff brought the railroad’s misconduct to light, the case immediately settled. Two more families obtained the closure they needed.
On November 15, 2012, the Hunt for Heroes Parade in Midland, Texas was struck by a Union Pacific Railroad train. This high profile case has shed light on serious problems with the deregulation of railroads. Prior to 2012 the Union Pacific Railroad and gradually increased its train speeds through Midland, Texas. Its self-imposed maximum speed limit of 79 mph was in open defiance of the city’s ordinance restricting train speeds to a maximum of 25 mph. During the same period of time the railroad also made an unauthorized reduction in the warning time that it’s signal system was supposed to provide. In addition to the intentional reduction of warning time by design, the railroad also installed defective circuits which caused the warning time to be reduced even further. The defective signal system was allowed to operate for seven years before this tragedy. After this disaster the railroad immediately denied the existence of the defect in its circuits, concealed evidence of signal malfunctions, provided false information to investigators and destroyed critical evidence. The federal regulators who investigated the crash allowed the railroad to do its own post-accident testing, excluded the veterans from participating the investigation and issued a report based upon false information that came directly from the Union Pacific Railroad.
After two years of intense litigation Pottroff and his team was able to uncover evidence that the railroad had known about the defective signals long before the crash and done nothing to fix the problem. In early 2015 all the claims made by clients of Mr. Pottroff were settled.
In August of 2015, Mr. Pottroff returned to Washington D.C. to testify before the Federal Railroad Administration a hearing on proposed regulations that would be needed to implement the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The railroad industry was pushing back against the basic safety requirements of the Rail Safety Improvement Act. The focus of his testimony was the need for transparency in the safety process and accountability in our civil justice system for safety violations that injure or kill members of the public.
In March of 2017, a CSX freight train hit a tour bus loaded with senior citizens in Biloxi, Mississippi. The bus had become hung up on the Main Street crossing in Biloxi. Victims from the crash and the City of Biloxi called upon Mr. Pottroff to hold the railroad accountable for the damages caused by this crash. The hump at the Main Street crossing had been raised incrementally over the years until it was eventually built up to about four feet higher than Main Street. Mr. Pottroff agreed to take on the railroad for its cost-cutting track maintenance practices that continually raise crossing surfaces. This is the same fight that he has made on behalf of trucking companies when their trucks get hung up on these crossings and hit by a train before they can get free.
Robert L. Pottroff was a firm believer that trial lawyers have a unique opportunity to improve the world around us. His lectures often challenged trial lawyers to take this duty seriously. Lawyers are in a unique position to fight for public safety in all three branches of our government. They must take this duty seriously when fighting for public safety in our courts, in our legislatures and in the administration of laws by the executive branch. His most gratifying work as a trial lawyer involved representing victims and fighting to protect their rights. Over the last three decades, he was engaged in a protracted battle with the railroad industry over issues of public safety. He was dedicated to holding railroads accountable for practices that needlessly endanger the public. Through the foundation he set at Pottroff & Karlin, Mr. Pottroff’s battle with railroads will persist as long as the rail industry chooses to engage in practices that prioritizes profits over their responsibility for public safety.