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Railroad Injury Blog

How the Safety Appliance Act Enhances Your FELA Claim - Part 2

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

In Part 1 we learned that the Safety Appliance Act is a powerful tool for injured railroaders. If you are injured by the failure of the railroad to install or maintain any of the safety devices required by the Safety Appliance Act, you do not need to prove the railroad was negligent. However, you do have to prove that the railcar where the safety device failed was “in use” at the time of your injury. This may not always be an easy determination, and the facts of each individual case will determine whether a railcar is "in use." But there are some guidelines to keep in mind.

Normally, a railcar is not considered "in use" when it is undergoing maintenance. So the Safety Appliance Act does not usually apply to railroaders who are injured as the result of repair, inspection, or servicing of a train. This makes some sense so the railroad is permitted to detect and correct defective conditions during maintenance.

A train is certainly "in use" when it is not in need of repair or servicing and has been "okayed" by railway officials for service. When the train has already been serviced and inspected, it is "in use." A defective railcar may still be "in use" while being transported to a shop for repair. A car stopped temporarily to inspect for defects, that has not been taken out of service, may also still be “in use.” However, a defective railcar temporarily stored on ladder track may be not “in use.”

Here again, it is key to your case to have an experienced railroad attorney who can argue forcefully that the railcar that caused your injury was "in use" at the time. The law can be a "grey area" where arguments can be made on both sides.

If the railcar that causes your injury is not "in use," it doesn’t mean you lose your FELA case. It simply means that your case is not enhanced by the Safety Appliance Act, and you will have to prove the railroad was negligent in causing your injury. But establishing that your injury was a result of a violation of the Safety Appliance Act is a huge step forward in winning your case.

Call or email me with your questions:
H. David Leibensperger
hdavid@bsgfdlaw.com

How the Safety Appliance Act Enhances Your FELA Claim - Part 1

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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.

Call or email me with your questions:
H. David Leibensperger
hdavid@bsgfdlaw.com

Supreme Court Requires Injured Railroad Employees to Litigate Far From Their Homes

Monday, June 19, 2017

I wanted to write this post for our friends who work in the railroad industry because the Supreme Court recently issued a decision that affects the rights of every railroader. On May 30, 2017, the Supreme Court decided the case BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell. The Court’s decision limits the states where railroad employees can file FELA lawsuits for their injuries. Prior to the Tyrrell case, railroad employees could file their FELA lawsuits against their employer in any state where the employer did business. That rule was based on interpretations of the language in the statute of the FELA itself that, “an action may be brought in a district court of the United States,” in the district “in which the defendant shall be doing business at the time of commencing such action.” The rule allowed for great convenience for injured railroad employees in bringing their lawsuits, particularly employees who are injured over the road and would like to be able to bring a lawsuit close to where they live.

Restrictions on Where Lawsuits Can Be Brought

Under the Supreme Court’s Tyrrell decision, a railroad employee may only bring a lawsuit in a state where the employee’s injury occurred, or in a state where the employer’s “affiliations with the State are so continuous and systematic as to render them essentially at home in the forum State.” This usually means the state that is the employer’s place of incorporation, or the state where the employer has its principal place of business. The Court held that only in an “exceptional case,” will a corporate employer defendant's operations in another state “be so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State.” The Supreme Court held this ruling is necessary to protect the Due Process rights of corporate employer defendants under the 14th Amendment.

Corporations Over People

The ruling is not only objectionable for continuing to put the “constitutional rights” of corporations above the rights of working people, but it will also have real negative impacts on railroad employee lawsuits. Now, a railroader injured over the road, far away from home, may be unable to sue their own employer in the state where they report for work. Instead, railroaders injured over the road will only be able to sue the railroad in the state where the injury happened, the state where the railroad is headquartered, or the state that is the railroad’s principle place of business. Yet another example of profits over people.

The FELA: Protection Wherever You May Roam

Thursday, March 02, 2017

At a recent railroad union meeting Attorney H. Dave Leibensperger attended there were several questions about the railroad’s responsibility when someone is injured off the work site and we thought it would be good to get some information out about this. It’s important to remember that the railroad’s duty to its employees to provide them with a safe place to work is “non-delegable,” which means they can’t push that responsibility on to anyone else – the railroad is responsible for your workplace safety no matter where you are. The buck stops with your railroad employer. We recently handled a case involving an injury on an industry sidetrack. Even though the railroad did not own or operate the industry sidetrack or property, the railroad employer was held responsible for condition of the industry’s property because it was an area where railroaders were required to perform their duties.

The Responsibility of The Railroad

There are many binding legal precedents holding the railroad’s feet to the fire. The United States Supreme Court, in Shenker v. B. & O. Ry. Co., 374 U.S. 1, 7-8 (1963), ruled that the railroad’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace applies even “when [employees] are required to go onto the premises of a third party over which the railroad has no control.” The Supreme Court ruled the railroad liable for another railroad’s negligent maintenance of mail car that injured the plaintiff. In another Supreme Court case, Sinkler v. Missouri Pac. R. Co., 356 U.S. 326 (1958), the Supreme Court ruled the railroad was liable for the negligence of another railroad’s switching crew. In Payne v. Baltimore & O. R. Co., 309 F.2d 546 (6th Cir. 1962), a federal appeals court ruled the railroad was liable for an accumulation of ash on third-party’s property that killed the plaintiff. In Cazad v. Chesapeake & O. Ry. Co., 622 F.2d 72 (4th Cir. 1980), another federal appeals court ruled the railroad was liable for an injury caused by uncovered drain culvert, again on the property of a third party. In one of the best cases for railroad employees, Empey v. Grand Trunk W. R. Co., 869 F.2d 293 (6th Cir. 1989), a federal appeals court ruled the railroad liable for an injury caused by the negligence of a hotel where the plaintiff was staying in between shifts – the plaintiff slipped on water in the bathroom because the hotel shower was poorly maintained.

Keeping Safe On The Job

So keep in mind, your railroad employer always has to keep you safe on the job – that’s their responsibility to you for all the hard work you give them. If you have an injury that appears it was someone else’s fault, it is still important to contact a lawyer because the railroad’s duty to you is “non-delegable” – it protects you anywhere you are working.

If you have any questions regarding a potential railroad injury case, contact Attorney H. Dave Leibensperger at 410-769-5406 or hleibensperger@bsgfdlaw.com
for a consultation.

Who Knew What, and When? It’s Important in FRSA Whistleblower Cases

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Federal Rail Safety Act (“FRSA”) whistleblower law is one of the most powerful tools in a railroad employee’s arsenal to protect themselves against harassment and intimidation at work. Next year will mark the 10 year anniversary of the implementation of this law, which was passed in recognition of the hostile work environment prevalent across the country in the railroad industry. As we approach this milestone anniversary and reflect upon our office’s extensive experience in handling these cases, I realize that the hoped-for cultural change in the rail industry is frustratingly slow. Despite significant verdicts against railroads across the country, harassment and intimidation regarding safety-related issues continues. Instead of changing behavior, the railroads are looking for new arguments to make to defeat these claims. One such argument is to allege that the key decision-makers with regard to adverse action against an employee were unaware of their safety-related protected activity. I thought it wise to discuss this railroad strategy.

Who Knew What and When?

One of the important aspects of a whistleblower case under the FRSA is: who knew what, and when? The FRSA protects employees who notify the railroad of their (or a co-worker’s) work-related injury or illness, report a hazardous safety or security condition, refuse to perform unsafe work, or provide information regarding fraud related to railroad safety, among many other things. This is called “protected activity.” One of the things an employee must prove is that his or her employer knew that the employee engaged in this conduct (engaged in “protected activity), before the employer retaliated against the employee. A railroad who knows an employee has engaged in protected activity cannot retaliate against the employee by suspending them, terminating them, or discriminating against them in any way.The railroads strategy, therefore, is to insulate the ultimate decision-maker from knowledge of the protected activity. In other words, the higher up the chain the ultimate decision-maker is, the harder it is to prove the knowledge requirement.

The View From The Bench

Conservative judges in some jurisdictions have ruled that the person who ultimately suspends or fires the employee must personally know about the employee’s protected activity for the employee to have a whistleblower case.  More liberal jurisdictions have ruled that it is enough for any manager or witness in the decision-making chain to know about the protected activity.

Either way, it is important for railroad whistleblowers to be able to state who knew what, and when.  Which managers knew you engaged in protected activity? When did they know it?How do you know they knew about it?  The more specific the whistleblower can be about this, the better, and the stronger the whistleblower’s case will be.

What Really Works in FRSA Cases

In handling these cases, we have found that it is important to employ aggressive and thorough investigation and discovery strategies. In one recent case, our office took 22 depositions of railroad employees before we uncovered the factual information which allowed us to argue that there was a clear link between the protected activity and the ultimate decision-maker’s actions. Not unexpectedly, the railroads will use every strategy and stretch the limits of credibility to conceal this information. Despite the challenges, it is important to continue to pursue whistleblower cases across the country so that at some point, the railroads realize it would be better to change their culture of harassment and intimidation rather than continue to fight these cases.

Should you have any questions regarding a potential whistleblower case, please do not hesitate to contact our office for a consultation. Please visit our website at www.bsgfdlaw.com and download our App for Railroad Employees (search “Matt Darby” and “railroad” in App Store).You can also reach us at 800-248-FELA.

Contributory and Comparative Negligence In FELA Cases

Thursday, October 06, 2016

As I indicated last week, to recover damages in a Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) case, there is a requirement that the Railroad act negligently in producing a Railroader’s injuries.  Contributory negligence is a similar concept except that it’s an action or inaction on the part of the Railroader which leads in some manner to his/her own injury. In determining whether a Railroader was contributory negligence a determination is made as to whether he/she took, or failed to take, actions which a reasonably prudent person would have taken under the circumstances. If there is a finding that Railroader acted negligently and that negligence played any part in bringing about his/her own injuries that person will be deemed to be contributorily negligent.

A determination of contributory negligence does not bar a Railroader from recovering damages for his/her injuries. It does result in a reduction of damages in proportion to the amount of negligence attributed to the injured Railroader. This is the concept of comparative negligence. If the finder-of-fact (usually a jury) determines that the Railroader was contributorily negligent, it then must determine the percentage to which the Railroader’s own negligence contributed to his/her injuries. That percentage of negligence is then used to reduce the Railroader’s damages. For example, a jury determines that a Railroader is entitled to damages for his/her injuries in the amount of $1,000.000.00. The jury also makes the determination that the Railroader was contributorily negligent in causing his/her own injuries and that contributory negligence contributed 25% to those injuries. The Court would then reduce the damage award by 25% to $750,000.00.

The real importance of the concepts of contributory and comparative negligence is the fact that a Railroader can recover damages for his/her injuries event if he/she was partially at fault in causing them.

THE SQUEAKY WHEEL GETS THE GREASE

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Everyone has heard the above adage many times and understands what it means. One wonders whether the origin of this phrase comes from the Railroad Industry. In any event, it certainly has modern applicability to a Railroaders rights under the Federal Rail Safety Act Whistleblower Provisions.

One of the strongest provisions of the Federal Rail Safety Act Whistleblower Provisions prohibits a Railroad from denying, delaying or interfering in any way with the medical treatment of an employee who was injured during the course of employment. In addition, if the injured employee requests transportation to a medical facility, as a result of an injury during the course of employment, the Railroad is required to promptly arrange to have the injured Railroad employee transported to the nearest hospital (where the employee can receive safe and appropriate medical care). However, it is incumbent upon the employee to understand these rights and to affirmatively protect them. In other words, an employee must recognize when their employer is attempting to interfere with their medical treatment. This often arises in a context of a Railroad Official’s attempt to influence emergency room treatment. It is well known among Railroad Supervisors that if an emergency room physician prescribes medication or restricts the Railroad employee for working for a period of time, the injury becomes FRA reportable. Because a significant portion of a Railroad Supervisor’s bonus is based upon minimizing FRA reportable injuries, they are highly motivated to influence the emergency room physician against prescribing medication or restricting work activities. However, the Railroad worker must enforce these rights by informing hospital personnel that no medical information is to be discussed with anyone from the Railroad. In other words, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease".

In addition, an injured employee must affirmatively request transportation to the nearest hospital if injured during the course of their employment. If this right is not requested, then the previously mentioned provisions of the Federal Rail Safety Whistleblower Act are not triggered. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease".

The Importance Of Underinsured And Uninsured Motorist Coverage

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Part of every railroaders daily existence is the process of deadheading from one work location to another. It is important to remember that under the Federal Employers Liability Act, the railroad is required to provide you with a reasonably safe place in which to work. This duty extends to the premises of third parties, including industry yards, hotels and any other place the railroad requires you to be in the furtherance of your work duties. Just like with most other cases, it is important that the railroad be made aware of any dangerous condition you may encounter anyplace you work. This can often make the difference between a successful case and one that is not.

Deadheading

In the context of deadheading, it is important to understand that the van company is considered an agent of the railroad. This means that legally, any negligence of the van or truck is considered to be the negligence of the railroad. Therefore, if the van driver violates a traffic rule or drives negligently, your FELA case would essentially proceed just as if the injury occurred on railroad property. This would also be true if there was some defect in the vehicle that caused or contributed to the accident. The lesson here is that if there is any aspect of the accident that was caused or contributed to by the van driver, it is important that you record that fact. For example, if the van driver was not paying attention due to the fact he appeared to be fatigued so he did not react as quickly as he could have, make sure that this fact is noted in the railroad injury report. That way, even if the main theory of the case is that another driver was negligent, the railroad will still be held in the case as a joint-tortfeasor; meaning that they would be required to pay any verdict in the case.

If You Are Injured In An Accident

However, what happens if the van driver was not negligent and you are injured in an accident? It is clear that you would be “covered” under the FELA, but since the railroad was not negligent, a FELA case would not be successful. Therefore, the only case you may have would be against the driver who caused the accident. What would happen if the van was stopped at a red light and was rear-ended by another vehicle? Since the van driver was not negligent, there would be no chance of a recovery under the FELA. Your only recovery would be against the other driver. That would be fine if the other driver has sufficient liability insurance limits, but what if the other driver only had minimum coverage?

It Could Happen Just Like This…

Consider this scenario. You are in a van that is rear-ended. You injure your neck and have to have surgery and miss two years from work, or maybe cannot ever return to work? The driver who caused the accident only has $20,000 in liability coverage? That means that even if you have lost wages of $250,000, you would receive $20,000 and that is all!

The Best Way To Protect Yourself

How can we avoid this outcome? The only way to protect yourself is to purchase Underinsured/Uninsured Motorist (UIM) coverage with high limits. I suggest that the limits be at least $1 million. UIM coverage applies when a motor vehicle accident occurs and the negligent driver does not have sufficient liability insurance limits to satisfy the damages you suffered as a result of the accident. The claim is then submitted to your UIM insurance company. If the case does not settle, a lawsuit can be filed just like any other personal injury case. In addition, your insurance rates cannot be increased if you pursue a UIM claim. Having sufficient UIM limits can be the difference between being completely compensated for your losses and losing everything you have worked for in your career.

When You Need Help

Please contact your Smart Transportation Division Designated Legal Counsel Matt Darby at 800-248-FELA or pmdarby@bsgfdlaw.com if you have any questions.

By Matt Darby

Why We Need The FELA

Friday, June 10, 2016

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at two (2) Union Meetings, one in West Seneca, New York and the other in Altoona, Pennsylvania. One of the themes of the presentation dealt with the importance of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). We had some really good discussions and I thought it would be a good topic for a blog, so here I go. In contrast to State Workers’ Compensation Laws, the FELA requires that an injured employee prove that he or she did not have a reasonably safe place in which to work in order to recover any damages, including lost wages. In other words, there must be a showing that the railroad was negligent. At the meetings, it was clear that there was a question as to why the FELA is necessary.

The History and Purpose of FELA

In order to understand this very astute question, it is important for us to understand the historical purpose of the FELA. All railroad employees recognize that railroad work is dangerous. At the time that the FELA was passed in 1908, 4,500 railroad workers died and nearly 88,000 were injured performing railroad work. In response to the carnage taking place along the nation’s tracks, Congress enacted the FELA. The purpose of the FELA was appropriately summarized by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas when he said “the Federal Employers’ Liability Act was designed to put on the railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes and lives which it consumed in its operation”. Therefore, the FELA was designed to achieve two (2) goals. First, it was designed to provide injured railroad workers or their surviving family members fair compensation for injuries and deaths sustained while working on the railroad. Of equal importance, the FELA creates a financial incentive for railroads to improve safety. The New York Times published a Pulitzer Prize – winning expose in 2005 which confirmed that railroad work is still dangerous. The New York Times concluded that left to their own devices, railroads skimp on safety and cover up wrong doing. This is hardly a secret to those working for a railroad!

The Whistleblower Provision of FELA

The culture found on railroads was further evidenced by Congress’ decision to pass the 2007 Amendments to the Federal Rail Safety Act, which included a very strong Whistleblower provision. Obviously, Congress felt that railroads still needed an additional incentive to create a safe place for employees’ to work as well as a law for compensating railroad employees who report unsafe conditions. Again, an attempt to create a financial incentive for railroads to do the right thing.

Therefore, in answer to the question posed at my two (2) recent meetings, the reason that the FELA requires a showing of negligence is that it is an important component of railroad safety. Left to their own devices, railroads would simply ignore safety and treat their employees like any other piece of equipment; they would simply get rid of it when it was no longer profitable.

By Matt Darby

What Makes A Good Railroad Injury Case?

Friday, April 29, 2016

I am often asked by clients, perspective clients and railroad employees I meet throughout my travels about what makes a good railroad (injury) case. Well, that is a difficult question to answer. I always start out by reminding railroaders that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), is a negligence based law. The law requires that the railroad employer provide its employees with a “reasonably safe place in which to work.” What does that mean? It means, in most cases, that the railroad must have either created the dangerous condition causing the injury or the railroad had direct knowledge of the dangerous condition or, as an alternative, that it existed long enough that the railroad should have known.

Pre-Existing Dangerous Conditions

If we can prove that the railroad created the dangerous condition then we will meet our burden of proof. In most instances, however, we must rely on proving that the railroad knew or should have known of the dangerous condition. This highlights the importance of reporting by employees of unsafe conditions on a regular basis and the memorialization of those complaints in a written record. Notice of unsafe conditions to the railroad is clearly important to rectify an unsafe condition. As a reminder, reporting an unsafe condition is a protected activity under the Federal Rail Safety Act Whistleblower Provisions. However, this information can also be critical in an FELA case. Accordingly, I encourage all railroad employees to report unsafe conditions and document the reporting. Many Unions have legislative departments that are active with safety issues. They are often a good repository for these unsafe condition reports.

FELA Exemptions for Negligence

There are certain exceptions under the FELA to the negligence requirement. Specifically, claims arising under the Safety Appliance Act and the Locomotive Inspection Act are different. However, in the vast majority of claims it is important that we have information to prove that the railroad knew or should have known of the dangerous condition. Please help keep your railroad safe by reporting unsafe conditions. Hopefully, this will prompt the railroad to correct the condition and improve the safety or the railroad. If not, the information may prove critical in assisting a co-employee in recovering the damages he or she is entitled to under the FELA.

By Matt Darby

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