When a railroader gets injured on the job, the claim is always governed by the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA). But some FELA injury cases are enhanced by the Safety Appliance Act, a federal law first enacted in 1893. Typical FELA cases require the injured railroader to prove some negligence on the part of the railroad in causing the injury. Cases are "enhanced" by the Safety Appliance Act because, when there is a violation of the Safety Appliance Act, the railroader does not need to prove negligence on the part of the railroad. The violation of the Safety Appliance Act by itself, proves the railroader’s case. This concept is often referred to as "negligence per se" or "strict liability."
The Safety Appliance Act requires that railcars have certain safety devices installed and in proper working order. Namely, grab irons, sill steps, running boards, handholds, and ladders must be securely mounted. There can be no slippery substances on locomotive walkways, including crossover walkways. Couplers must couple and uncouple automatically, without any need for railroaders to go between cars to perform coupling or uncoupling.
The braking system must be in good working order, including any related pipes, hoses, and reservoirs. The train’s brakes must permit the engineer to perform braking without the use of handbrakes. The handbrakes themselves must also function properly. Drawbars must be properly installed and functioning correctly. These are some of the most common requirements that are violated, but there are a number of other important safety devices that must be installed and working correctly under the Federal Railroad Administration’s regulations contained at 49 CFR Part 231.
If the cause of your injury is that any of these safety devices were not installed, or not in proper working order, you have a very strong case against the railroad. Your case will be "enhanced" by the Safety Appliance Act. It is important to have an attorney who understands railroad regulations, and the laws that may help enhance your FELA case.
The other important factor to consider in determining if the Safety Appliance Act enhances your case, is whether the railcar you were working on was "in use" at the time of your injury. We'll learn more about that in Part 2.
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H. David Leibensperger