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