As an adult, he was turned down for a job as a Navy nuclear propulsion specialist because of his monocular vision. He couldn't join the Air Force. And, even though he holds a commercial driver's license, the state of Arizona won't let him transport passengers and certain amounts of hazardous waste, all because he has only one eye. Coleman has no depth perception and little, if any, peripheral vision.
Yet, for the past few years, Michael Coleman has been a train engineer, at the controls of an often fast-moving 3,000-ton hunk of steel.
On September 7, 2000, Coleman was driving a train through Phoenix when he ran over -- and killed -- Charles Conway, who was operating a large asphalt roller at the intersection of 24th Street and Jefferson. Coleman, who wears a glass eye, says he didn't see Conway until just before he hit the construction worker.
Earlier this month, on October 1, a Maricopa County Superior Court jury awarded Conway's family $6.8 million for his death, including $5 million in punitive damages against Union Pacific Railroad, Coleman's employer. Although the City of Phoenix and the construction company that employed Conway also were defendants in the case, the jury found no liability on their parts and placed 100 percent of the blame on Union Pacific.
Thomas Slack, the attorney representing Conway's family, says the jury was particularly angry at Union Pacific, not only because the railroad allowed a one-eyed man to be an engineer but because of its callous attitude after the accident and during the trial. He says Union Pacific took the position that people, including Conway on his asphalt roller, should have just gotten out of the way, even though the train crew violated safety regulations and that the train was traveling faster then it needed to be going when it went through the intersection.
"The jury said to the railroad that it's not OK to put your interests ahead of the general public, to say that we don't have to recognize safe practices," Slack says.
Tim Mackey, a Phoenix attorney who represented Union Pacific, declined to comment on the case.
Conway was part of a crew working on a project to redo the track area and put in new signals at the crossing at 24th Street and Jefferson, part of a realignment of 24th Street due to expansion at Sky Harbor Airport.
That particular intersection was considered "the most dangerous crossing in Phoenix," Slack says. The construction work had gone on for nearly a year and most trains would slow to 10 miles per hour approaching the crossing, even though the track speed limit was 30 mph, he says.
On the day of the accident, Coleman drove the train through at 29 miles per hour, testimony at trial revealed. At the time the train was just a mile short of its destination, the switching yard at 16th Street. Testimony showed that the train would have pulled into the yard about one minute late if it had slowed to 10 mph.
Federal regulations also require that the railroad use a flagger if construction work is going on within 25 feet of the tracks. Flaggers are supposed to get everybody clear of the tracks when a train comes through. They are in communication with the engineer, usually via radio, but also can signal the engineer if the train needs to stop. Regulations require the train to stop if the tracks can't be cleared within 15 seconds of the train's arrival.
The city of Phoenix had given Union Pacific $185,000 to help pay for flaggers but the railroad, citing lack of manpower, never provided flaggers for the job site, Slack says, adding that as far as he could determine, the city's money had never been tapped.
A Phoenix police officer was at the site directing traffic and, when he saw the train approaching without slowing down, stayed on the tracks until the last possible moment in order to stop traffic. The officer jumped out of the way just before the train would have hit him, Slack says.
But Conway, operating the noisy asphalt roller, didn't see or hear the train until too late and had no time to clear the tracks before it hit him.
Coleman, with his impaired vision, also apparently couldn't see what was happening until it was too late. Moreover, Coleman was a trainee engineer at the time and the conductor and the supervising engineer, who were in the cab with him, also failed to take action to slow or stop the train, testimony at trial showed. The supervising engineer testified that no one had told him that Coleman was impaired.
Much of the case focused on how the one-eyed Coleman came to be an engineer. He had applied for the job in 1995 but was rejected by the company (then known as Southern Pacific) because of his monocular vision.
"The position of switchman, as well as locomotive engineer, requires excellent vision," a Southern Pacific official wrote in a June 1995 letter. "Mr. Coleman has absolutely no vision in one eye. I am informed that this condition results in a significant problem concerning a loss of depth perception as well as peripheral vision. Given the essential job functions of a railroad employee in train and/or engine service, the absence of such vision creates a definite safety hazard, both to the employee and to others in the working environment."
Coleman filed a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act, contending he was being unfairly denied the job because monocular vision is considered a disability that could be accommodated. And a lower court judge did issue a ruling saying monocular vision is a disability as defined by law.
Eventually, Union Pacific paid Coleman $400,000 to settle the case -- and gave him the job he wanted as an engineer.
But Slack says the railroad could have fought Coleman's lawsuit and argued that job was too dangerous for a person with Coleman's condition. The federal law does allow an employer to deny a disabled person certain positions that are deemed too dangerous.
But Union Pacific "just caved and didn't want to spend the money to go further," Slack says, a key factor in the jury's decision to blame the railroad for Conway's death.
Now, the construction project is finished and new crossing gates and flashing signals protect the intersection. Off to one side, a memorial, made of railroad spikes, honors Charles Conway.
And Michael Coleman is still driving the Union Pacific train.
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