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Worker injured in South Side rail yard alleges negligence, race played a role

Ernest Staggers Jr. is scheduled to have his leg amputated next week.

Ernest Staggers Sr. speaks about his son, Ernest Staggers Jr., before and after the incident during a press conference on the corner of E 63rd St. and S Prairie Ave in Washington Park announcing details of a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Railway Company alleging it intentionally put Ernest Staggers Jr. and other Black workers at its South Side Chicago rail yard at risk by knowingly disregarding safety protocols and regulations, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.
Ernest Staggers Sr. talks about his son, Ernest Staggers Jr., who was seriously injured while working in the Norfolk Southern Railway Co. yard near 63rd Street and Prairie Avenue.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The family of a Black railroad worker who was run over by a piece of heavy machinery at a South Side rail yard alleges in a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Railway that negligence and race played a role in the accident.

Ernest Staggers Jr., 31, slipped and fell while climbing onto a side loader crane, attempting to reach a small platform where he and other workers regularly sat while traveling to work sites. One of the crane’s tires rolled over Staggers, crushing his pelvis. The accident happened Aug. 24 at a Norfolk Southern rail yard near 63rd Street and Prairie Avenue.

Staggers was employed by ITS Conglobal, which provides intermodal services to Norfolk Southern, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Monday. Staggers’ job as a “groundman” included being “eyes on the ground” for operators of heavy machinery and assisting in loading and unloading trains.

The lawsuit contends supervisors ordered workers, most of whom were Black, to ride on the machinery even though safety protocols called for workers to be driven around the rail yard in passenger vehicles or trucks equipped with appropriate seating and seat belts,

A Norfolk Southern spokeswoman said in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times: “Although we generally do not comment on litigation, in this case it’s important for us to set the record straight. Neither Mr. Staggers nor his supervisors were employees of Norfolk Southern. We adamantly and specifically deny any allegation that our company treated people in a discriminatory or unsafe manner.“

Staggers, the father of an 11-year-old son, remains hospitalized at the University of Chicago Hospital where he’s undergone 16 surgeries in an effort to reconstruct his pelvis. Doctors are scheduled to amputate his left leg next week.

“Their needs were simply not taken into account,” family attorney Dan Herbert said of Staggers and his co-workers. “They were just young black muscle and grunt workers.”

Staggers’ father, Ernest Staggers Sr., a retired Chicago police officer, and his mother Michelle Staggers, a human resources employee at a retailer, said they visit their son daily.

“My boy is laying there and his life will never be the same, and I’m angry because the railroad did not cover their safety protocols and that’s the reason he got hurt,” Ernest Staggers Sr. said.

“One of the doctors told us his injuries are not in a book, and he and his colleagues are using their combined knowledge to put him back together, basically, and it’s really tough.”