N.Y. railroad liable for $565,000 in 4 workers' Lyme disease

April 30, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Tiny ticks perched on blades of grass have long been Sam Raccioppi's audience as he maintained weed-choked signal crossings for the Long Island Rail Road. When he awoke one morning with his left side paralyzed, he never suspected they were the culprits until the doctor said he had chronic Lyme disease.

Mr. Raccioppi still does not know when he was bitten, but a federal district judge held the railroad responsible for his illness and awarded him $160,000 this month. Three co-workers who contracted Lyme disease at work were given a total of $405,000 in the same lawsuit.

It is the first time a company has been found negligent after its employees became infected with the disease, said Karen Forschner, chairman of the board of directors of the Lyme Disease Foundation, an advocacy group based in Tolland, Conn.

"This should send a major wake-up call to anyone who sends people out into areas infested with the deer ticks that transmit the disease," Ms. Forschner said. "Schools, police departments and public utilities should know that they must take steps to safeguard their employees."

Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for the railroad, said that rather than providing a new measure of safety for employees, the decision placed unreasonable expectations on employers. She said the railroad had warned its workers about deer ticks, told them how to protect against bites and provided them with insect repellent.

"There is no way anyone can guard 100 percent against someone getting bit," Ms. McGowan said. "We feel that we did what we could for our employees."

Ms. McGowan said the railroad had not decided whether it would appeal.

Judge Robert J. Ward of the Southern District of New York held the railroad negligent because it did not have a mandatory and comprehensive program to educate its workers about Lyme disease and because it did not spray insecticide around the signal crossing.

Lyme disease is easily treated when detected early. Undiagnosed, it can cause many chronic conditions, including swollen joints, arthritis and severe headaches. Mr. Raccioppi, who is back at work, still suffers symptoms of the disease.

His lawyer, Ira M. Maurer of the New York firm of Elkind, Flynn & Maurer, said the decision would open a new area of law. "I have already been contacted by about 50 lawyers from around the country," he said.

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