In 2008, there were nearly 2,500 train accidents in the U.S., involving 27 fatalities. Illinois had the second highest number of accidents in the nation. The Federal Railroad Administration defines a train accident as an event involving on-track rail equipment that results in monetary damage to the equipment and track above a certain threshold. However, when all accidents/incidents involving railroads are reported, the number of accidents climbs astronomically to 12,480 for the year, with 796 fatalities and over 8,500 injuries.
Settling a railroad injury case can be a lengthy process, even when all steps are carefully taken to document and prove fault. These steps include receiving immediate medical attention, identifying the time, location and cause of the accident; filing an accident report; consulting with a doctor and continuing treatment; notifying your union chairman or authorities; contacting a law firm for legal consultation; bringing your claim forward before the statute of limitations expire; and proving fault on the part of the railroad in court, arbitration, or mediation. Read on to learn in detail how to navigate this process step-by-step.
- What to do Immediately After a Railroad Injury
- Determine if You Should Pursue a FELA Settlement or Workers’ Compensation
- Filing an Accident Report
- Proving Railroad Fault
- Contact a Designated Union Attorney
What to do Immediately After a Railroad Injury
The first thing to do if you are injured at work is to receive prompt medical attention. Your health and safety should always be your main concern. As soon as possible after your injuries have been attended to, there are several steps you should take to preserve your rights.
- Tell your co-workers how and where you were injured. If possible, show them the unsafe condition that caused your injury.
- Fill out an accident report identifying the unsafe condition or equipment that caused your injury.
- Even if you received emergency treatment for your injuries, see your own doctor for follow-up treatment.
- Tell your doctor how you were injured. Be sure to tell your doctor about all of your injuries.
- Do not give a statement to a claim agent unless required by your Book of Rules or Union contract.
- Notify your union local chairman regarding your injury.
- Call a law firm for help making an informed decision about your injury.
Determine if You Should Pursue a FELA Settlement or Workers’ Compensation
Railroad worker injuries are governed by the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). FELA was enacted in 1908 to protect and compensate railroad workers for on-the-job injuries. State workers’ compensation statutes followed shortly thereafter.
One must be careful, however, not to confuse FELA with Workers’ Compensation. In workers’ compensation, the employee gives up the right to go to court in exchange for prompt payment of benefits according to a predetermined schedule. Although such payments are considerably less than what one would expect to recover in a lawsuit, there is no requirement of a trial for the injured worker to prove negligence or fault on the part of the employer.
FELA, though, does require the worker to prove negligence on the part of the railroad in order to recover. Recovery, however, is not limited to a schedule of payments based on the type of injury; rather, the worker is entitled to recover various damages, including:
- Past and future medical expenses
- Loss of earnings
- Loss of earning capacity
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
FELA cases are subject to a statute of limitations, which means that you must commence your action within a certain period of time from the date of the injury, or your claim will be forever barred. Also, it is important to note that although the employee’s or injured party’s own negligence will not bar recovery, the amount of the award can be reduced in certain circumstances based on their contributory fault.
Filing an Accident Report
Railroads require employees who are injured at work to complete what is called an “incident” or “accident report.” Besides providing documentation that an incident occurred and detailing the facts and circumstances surrounding an incident related to injury, the report also is the first step in proving fault on the part of the railroad. Conversely, the railroad will use the opportunity to shift all blame to the employee.
In order for the employee to complete the report, these key tips you should keep in mind:
- Read through the entire form before you begin to fill it out. This will help you to organize your thoughts and put all the truthful information in its proper place.
- You may consider talking to your local chairman before completing the report. While this experience may be new to you, your local chairman and specifically union Designated Legal Counsel see these forms regularly and can be of assistance.
- Describe the incident. Detail any unsafe condition or equipment that may have contributed to your injury. These facts should be included and fully explained.
- State clearly if you believe the working conditions were unsafe.
- Identify all witnesses – anyone who either saw the incident or could testify as to any unsafe conditions or equipment.
- Know your rights. Do not be intimidated if you are required to complete the report in the presence of a company official. You have the right and the duty to complete the report fully and completely.
Completing an accident report may not be the first thing on your mind after you have been injured, but it is a critical step that demands your full attention. As soon as possible, you should consult with an attorney experienced in railroad worker injuries.
Proving Railroad Fault
Under the FELA, railroad employers engaged in interstate commerce have a “non-delegable duty” to provide their employees with a reasonably safe place to work. The failure to do so constitutes negligence. A railroad’s non-delegable duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work includes the duty to inspect the premises where its employees will be working and to take reasonable precautions to protect its employees from possible danger even if that property is owned by a third-party.
FELA cases may be brought in state or federal court. The decision of which forum to pursue depends on many factors and can be a critical component of your case. An attorney knowledgeable with FELA cases and the laws in your state will be able to determine the best course of action.
A railroad worker seeking to recover under the FELA must prove the railroad was negligent or at fault, which can include a violation of a federal safety statute or a federal safety regulation. As every railroad worker knows, there are many rules and regulations that apply to railroad work. These rules and regulations can often be complex and confusing. The railroads have teams of management employees and attorneys to help interpret the federal laws and regulations in a way that benefits the railroad.
The FELA is a fault-based statute.
Railroad Safety Statutes and Regulations that Supplement the FELA
Negligence or fault can be established in a case under the FELA if the railroad failed to exercise ordinary care to protect the safety of its workers. To supplement the FELA and to “facilitate employee recovery,” Congress also created the Locomotive Inspection Act and the Federal Safety Appliance Act. If the railroad violated a safety provision in the Locomotive Inspection Act or the Safety Appliance Act, the railroad is responsible for any injuries or damages that are caused by the violation.
In addition, the Federal Railroad Administration has created safety regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations that can be used as a basis for establishing fault against a railroad employer under the FELA. Although it was not always clear, it is now well-established that the violation of a safety regulation in the Code of Federal Regulations imposes absolute liability on railroad employers.
Injuries that can be Caused by a Violation of CFR Safety Regulations
Many different types of injuries have been caused by a railroad employer’s failure to comply with the Code of Federal Regulations, including injuries caused by:
- Broken engine seats
- Broken grab irons
- A failure to couple
- Radio rule violations
- Debris on the floor of a locomotive
- Defective switches
- Hours of Service Act violations
Injuries Caused “In Whole or In Part” by the Violation of a Federal Law
The violation of a safety statute or regulation aimed at the railroad industry does not have to be the sole cause, or even a proximate cause of a particular injury. Negligence as a matter of law is established, and the railroad is absolutely liable for an employee’s injury, if the violation simply contributes, “in whole or in part,” to the cause of the injury.
Railroad employers often attempt to argue in FELA cases that a finding of negligence based solely upon the violation of a safety regulation is overly harsh. However, Congress clearly intended this result when it enacted the FELA in 1908.
In responding to the railroad’s concern that the FELA is inequitable and punitive, the court for Charles A. Ries, Iii v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation stated:
But harsh too is the inevitable consumption of lives, limbs, and livelihoods by the railway industry. Employment in the railway industry remains perilous; we expect employers to maintain the highest standard of care. This includes observing statutory standards of care specific to the industry as well as other statutory obligations with equal diligence.
Contact a Designated Union Attorney Who is Experienced in FELA Cases
If you have a question or concern about whether an injury was caused by the failure to comply with a federal safety law or regulation, contact the FELA attorneys at Harrington, Thompson, Acker & Harrington, Ltd. immediately. There is no fee for a consultation with an experienced FELA attorney and we are here to assist you.