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Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) Claims
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Under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), railroad workers and their families have a right of action to sue in a court of law to recover money damages against their employer, the railroad, for injuries sustained on the job. Railroad employees and their families have the right to recover monetary damages for wage loss, medical expenses and treatments, human pain and suffering, and for partial and/or permanent disability.
Ted Morgan Law has been successful in helping many injured railroad workers and their families collect compensation for on-the-job injuries and permanent disability. If you are a railroad worker who has been seriously injured or disabled as a result of an unsafe condition at the workplace, you are entitled to money damages, and we can help.
Read on to learn more about your rights or get in touch with us for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. We hope this summary adds a bit of safety to your workplace while at the same time furthering your education about your rights as a railroad worker.
FELA & Railroad Negligence: Unsafe Conditions
Quick tip: A valid FELA claim must involve some “unsafe condition” at the workplace.
Generally, the claim must contain three essential elements:
- The railroad employee was injured on the job;
- The railroad was at-fault (e.g., failed to provide a safe place to work; or furnished defective equipment, or furnished a defective locomotive); and
- The unsafe condition caused an injury to the employee.
Railroad employers owe railroad employees a legal duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work. Every FELA claim is built upon a breach of this duty. In some instances, federal regulations provide specific ways the railroad must meet this duty. For example, vegetation must be controlled alongside the track so it does not interfere with trackside duties. Whether you are injured boarding your train, performing trackside duties, or using defective equipment, the bottom line is that you must show the railroad was negligent or failed to comply with a statute or regulation related to worker safety. Think: “unsafe conditions.”
Here are some examples of unsafe conditions:
- Were the tools and equipment you were provided in good working order and in good condition?
- Were you or your co-workers properly trained to do the job?
- Was there sufficient lighting in the yard or other workplace?
- If injured throwing a switch, was there debris or other materials making the switch too hard to throw?
- Was the ground littered with trash or vegetation, obstructing your vision or ability to avoid the accident?
- Was there oil, grease, or other “foreign substances” that caused you to fall?
- Were there enough “hands” to do the job and avoid injury?
- Is the area where the injury occurred properly inspected by the railroad? Is it properly maintained?
In connection to these examples of unsafe conditions, here are some theories of recovery against the railroad:
- Failure to provide proper supervision or training for the job being performed
- Defective, broken, and/or malfunctioning hand brakes and couplers and/or hard-to-throw switches
- Failure to maintain safe walkways
- Failure to provide safe transportation in company-provided vans to/from a dead-head drop point and the employee lodging (e.g., an unsafe driver allowed to haul railroad workers to the hotel)
- Failure to provide safe lodging and accommodations
- Failure to control the growth of vegetation adjacent to the roadbed
The Safety Appliance Act – The Locomotive Inspection Act
FELA is a federal law that applies to every common carrier by railroad and protects its employees from unsafe working conditions. In the interest of promoting worker safety, however, Congress has passed other laws which regulate the railroad. If the railroad violates these laws, the railroad can be held liable under the FELA for injuries sustained by its workers as a result of the violation.
The Safety Appliance Act requires that railroad cars are equipped with certain protections for safety. Here are a few examples:
- The braking system of a train must be free of defects. This includes all air hoses, air reservoirs and connecting pipes, and other parts of the system. The engineer should be able to control the speed of the train using the train’s air brakes (e.g., extreme rough movement of the train caused injuries attributable to a faulty braking system).
- Hand brakes, or manual brakes, must be in good working condition and operate efficiently.
- Ladders, grab irons, and footboards on the locomotive and cars must be in good working condition.
- Car couplers must couple automatically upon impact and without employees entering the space between the cars.
The Boiler Inspection Act (a.k.a. Locomotive Inspection Act) applies specifically to the locomotive. It can be summarized generally to provide the following:
- It requires that all parts and appurtenances to the locomotive be in proper working condition and safe for the workers using them.
- It prohibits the presence of oil, grease, sand, or any other “foreign object” on the locomotive that poses risk of injury to the workers using them.
The Personal Injury Report
Quick tip: Immediately report your accident and injury, be precise, and do not hesitate to tell the railroad what was wrong with working conditions and/or any equipment that caused your incident.
Perhaps the most important decision you will make is whether to report your injury. This is your chance to tell YOUR story, so take your best shot.
There are many good reasons to report your accident as soon as possible, including:
- Unsafe Conditions: Use the personal injury report to take a position and point out unsafe conditions. Absent these unsafe conditions, could your accident have been avoided? Are others at risk due to this condition?
- Your Memory: Now is the time to record the exact date, time, place, job, and other specifics (e.g., faulty switch, locomotive defect). Do it while the details are fresh in your mind, right after it happens, not months and years later after the memory fades.
- The FRA Wants to Know: Your railroad employer has a federal duty to keep track of reportable accidents (whether involving injury or not) and to report those accidents to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry’s “watchdog” for unsafe working conditions. For this reason alone, you owe it to yourself and your fellow co-workers to document any unsafe working conditions.
- Railroad Investigation: Typically, once the employee reports the accident and injury, the railroad investigates the accident. Likewise, if the employee fails to report the accident or injury, there is no railroad investigation. As odd as this may sound, there are times where the railroad’s own investigation will help your case.
- FELA Does Not Require It (but the Railroad Does): Attorney Ted Morgan has spoken to experienced railroad workers who believed the failure to report the accident to the railroad barred the worker from ever filing a FELA claim related to that accident. That is simply not true. But, from a practical standpoint, we all know that the railroad considers the failure to report the accident a serious violation of the company rules—another good reason to fill out the report.
How to File Out Your Personal Injury Report
When filing out your personal injury report, there are a few things to consider and which you should take note of, including:
- What Caused Your Accident? Sometimes, the cause of the accident is obvious; e.g., an improperly lined switch, a malfunctioning (defective) derail, insufficient lighting, a broken grab iron, an oily running board on an engine, defective tools, or trackside weeds and vegetation caused you to fall or blocked your vision. Be sure to describe the working conditions that caused your accident.
- Beware of Railroad Questions on the Form: When you complete the railroad’s personal injury report, be attentive to details and do not shy away from explaining what the railroad did wrong. For example, one of the major railroads operating in the southeastern United States offers the following questions on the face of its PI report:
- Was anyone at fault?
- Did defective tools or equipment cause an accident?
- Did the employee have a safe place in which to work?
- Was the workplace adequately lighted?
- Was there any failure to give usual or necessary signals, warnings, or protection?
The railroad has a statutory duty to provide a safe workplace free of defective equipment, free of defective walkways, and clear of debris that may cause workers to fall and sustain injuries. Oftentimes, injuries occurring at dawn, dusk, or night involve issues of inadequate lighting.
Seek Medical Attention & Consult Your Doctor
Quick tip: One of the most frequently used defenses to any personal injury claim is the failure of the injured person to seek medical treatment. Although there are times when you just cannot see a doctor immediately following your accident, it is always best to seek medical attention at your first opportunity.
Going back to the essential elements of a FELA claim (above), the railroad is liable for money damages related to injuries caused by the accident. Ergo, the medical testimony must support your claim of injury.
Here are a few more things to consider about medical treatment:
- Your Doctor: You do not have to see the railroad doctor; you have an absolute right to see the doctor of your choice. Your trainmaster or another supervisor cannot force you to see the “railroad’s doctor.” There is no law that says your trainmaster or any other railroad official has the right to accompany you and/or be present when you see the doctor.
- Medical History: The first doctor you see after this accident needs to know what happened, how you were hurt, and what parts of your body were injured and where you hurt. This information will serve as the bedrock of the doctor’s medical testimony that your injury was caused in the specific accident that (hopefully) you reported to the railroad. Be forewarned, if a doctor cannot relate your injury to the accident, your case may be over.
- Mitigation of Damages: The law requires you to minimize your injury (even though it was not your fault). If you fail to seek medical attention and your injury worsens significantly as a result, you may not be entitled to recover for the injury. This theory also holds true if the doctor instructs or prescribes that you receive physical therapy or take certain medications and you fail to follow his or her advice. This area of the law can be quite troublesome for the individual who delays treatment because he or she “just doesn’t like doctors.”
The Bottom Line
The FELA provides a well-deserved source of compensation for railroad workers who suffer on-the-job injuries as a result of the railroad’s failure to provide a safe place to work.
If you are involved in such an incident, remember:
- Determine the unsafe condition that caused your accident
- Report the unsafe condition of the railroad
- Seek medical attention promptly and from your doctor
- Consult competent FELA counsel
Hopefully, this summary will provide practical advice for the railroad worker who is injured on the job. Just keep in mind that sound legal advice and analysis of a particular case comes from a one-on-one conversation with your attorney, not this summary.
- Federal Transportation Regulations – This site includes all of the pertinent FRA regulations governing the largest railroads in the country.
- Federal Railroad Administration – The FRA regulates the railroad industry and can be a valuable resource for the rail worker.
- U.S. Railroad Retirement Board – Railroad retirement benefits, forms, publications and online services.
- Code of Federal Regulations: Transportation – Full text of federal regulations affecting the transportation industry including railroads.
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