In a case decided last week, the Nebraska Supreme Court paved the way for a wrongful death case against Union Pacific Railroad to move forward. The case stems from the death of 13-year-old Efrain Ramos-Domingo in 2005 in Schuyler, Nebraska when he was struck by a Union Pacific train while attempting to cross a double line of railroad tracks. For years now, Efrain’s mother, Manuela, has been trying to seek justice via the court system and this decision now makes that a possibility.
Although at its heart the case is a relatively straightforward wrongful death claim, determining Union Pacific’s role in the death of the boy has been put on hold as the courts attempted to sort out some complications related to the case. Specifically, just two days after her son passed away, representatives from Union Pacific approached Manuela with a settlement offer of $15,000, which Manuela accepted and signed. When Manuela then sought to hold Union Pacific liable in court for the wrongful death of her son, Union Pacific alleged that she had forfeited her rights to a trial in exchange for the $15,000. This is the primary issue that the Supreme Court addressed, ultimately ruling that the settlement was void and permitting her claim to move forward in court.
The facts of this case are a sort of David and Goliath type story that unfortunately is not all that uncommon in our civil justice system. The plaintiff in this case—the mother—was a Guatemalan immigrant who was illiterate, did not understand her legal rights at the time that she signed the settlement, and needed the money for her son’s burial and funeral services. On the other hand, Union Pacific is a company with significant experience in dealing with claim settlements. These clearly unequal bargaining positions were a key reason that the court sided with the plaintiff in the case: the settlement agreement simply cannot be held out as valid under these circumstances.
Given these facts, this is an important decision for plaintiffs seeking their day in court. The case highlights some of the disadvantages that the average person is subject to when trying to protect their rights. It also gives an idea of some of the tactics those companies might use to avoid trial—tactics such as pushing for quick settlements and trying to avoid disclosing their business practices. The Court’s decision in this case, however, protects the rights of plaintiffs and gives them an important tool to use in the future. As for the plaintiff in the case, she will finally get her day in court.