While the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. offers protection to all railroad employees who are injured in the course of their employment due to some negligence on the part of the railroad or its employees, engineers and trainmen who suffer injuries on locomotives that are in use (i.e. not being repaired or serviced) are given a heightened level of protection by the Locomotive Inspection Act 49 C.F.R. § 2071. We are often asked the difference between a claim for an injury under the FELA versus the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA). There are several significant differences between general FELA claims and LIA claims. The history and purpose of the Acts are important when you are attempting to understand the difference between the coverage and protection afforded by the various Acts. Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act in 1893. It became effective in 1900. Railroads had expanded quickly following the end of the Civil War. As rail traffic increased there was also an increase in injuries to railroad workers. Many of the injuries were associated with coupling operations. In response, Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act which required automatic couplers and airbrakes to reduce the times railroad employees had to go between cars in coupling operations. (The Safety Appliance Act is now found at 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq.) A later amendment to the Safety Appliance Act increased its scope to require secure grab irons and hand holds on the ends and sides of rail cars.
The FELA was enacted in 1908 to address dangers encountered by all railroad workers in the course of their jobs. An injured railroad employee has a claim under the FELA if their injury was caused in some part (no matter how small) by the negligence of the railroad or its employees. This means there must be some type of negligence on the part of the railroad established by the injured employee to recover damages under the Act.
The FELA is also a comparative negligence law. 45 U.S.C. § 53 (this means an injured employee’s recovery may be reduced in proportion to their own negligence.) (If a jury or court finds an injured employee was 50 percent responsible for their injuries, the verdict or award will be reduced by 50 percent, etc.)
A predecessor to the LIA, the Ash Pan Act was passed by Congress in 1908. That Act described how ash pans were to be maintained and attached to steam locomotives. In 1911 Congress passed the Boiler Inspection Act which was applicable to all steam locomotives. The Act expanded over the years to cover all parts of a locomotive. The Act is now referred to as the Locomotive Inspection Act and is found at 49 U.S.C. § 20701. The LIA requires (1) all parts and appurtenances of a locomotive be in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury; (2) locomotives be inspected as required by federal regulations; (3) the locomotive and its parts and appurtenances can “withstand every test prescribed by the Secretary (of Transportation). The Code of Federal Regulations (tests prescribed by the Secretary of Transportation) describe minimum safety standards for all locomotives (except steam engines) at 49 C.F.R. § 229.1. The defense of contributory negligence is not available to a railroad in a claim under the LIA according to the law at 45 U.S.C. § 53.
Courts have interpreted these laws to mean if an employee is injured on a locomotive (other than during inspection, repair or servicing) due to a defective part, that employee is entitled to recover under the LIA. Courts have held the LIA to be liberally construed in light of its purpose to protect the employees (and others) by requiring use of safe equipment. Lilly v. Grand Trunk Western RR. Co., 317 US 481 (1943). The Act has been interpreted to cover defective parts and conditions on locomotives, including the presence of foreign substances on walkways. (See Lilly).
Courts have also held an action under the LIA is based upon a violation of the statute (i.e. a defective part or condition) and a railroad cannot escape liability under the LIA by showing it used reasonable care in maintaining the locomotive. O’Donnell v. Elgin, Jolit and Eastern Ry. Co., 338 US 384, 390 (1949). The language of these laws and the court rulings interpreting them have come to mean an employee injured due to a defective part or condition on a locomotive only needs to show the defective part or condition caused their injury while they were in the course of their employment (except inspecting, repairing or serving a locomotive). The employee who shows an injury due to such a defect does not have to establish negligence on the part of the railroad, nor will their recovery be reduced if their own negligence contributed to the injury.
In an FELA case, the employee must prove the negligence of the railroad caused, or at least contributed, to his or her injury. In a case under the LIA, the employee simply needs to prove a defective part or condition on a locomotive, not being inspected, repaired or serviced, caused or contributed to his or her injury. Contributory negligence (negligence on the part of the employee) may reduce an award under the FELA; however, contributory negligence should not affect an award under the LIA. The effect of these laws is to make a recovery for an employee injured in the course of his employment due to a defective part or condition on a railroad much easier to prove once such a condition or defect is established.
We are frequently asked by railroad employees who were injured during the use of a handbrake whether they’re covered by the FELA or if they have a case if an inspection of the brake after the injury showed it worked properly when inspected. The answers to these questions have been clearly responded to by the United States Supreme Court and well-established legal precedent.
- Injuries suffered by railroad employees operating handbrakes are covered by the FELA, 45 USC § 51, et. seq. and, if the car is “in use,” by the Safety Appliance Act, 49 USC § 20302(a)(1)(B). In this context “in use” is comparable to “in transit” (i.e. not set out for repairs or inspection). Minneapolis, St. Ry. Co. Minneapolis St. Paul Railway Companies v. Goneau, 269 US 406 (1926).
The differences between cases under the FELA versus the SAA are significant. If the car is not “in use” and the FELA is the governing law, an employee must show the railroad was negligent in some way in its maintenance, repair or inspection of the handbrake. The employee also needs show the railroad knew, or should have known, the brake was defective prior to the injury. Under the provisions of the FELA, an injured employee’s recovery may be reduced in proportion to any negligence a court or jury feels the injured employee engaged in leading to the injury (i.e., if a court feels the injured employee was 50 percent responsible for his or her injuries, the verdict will be reduced by 50 percent, and so on).
If the car is “in use” at the time of the injury, the injured employee only needs to show the brake failed to operate as intended (was “inefficient”) at the time of his injury. The landmark handbrake case is Myers v. Reading Co., 331 US 477 (1947). The Supreme Court points out in that opinion the proof to establish the railroad’s responsibility for an injury under the SAA is much simpler than under the FELA generally. The SAA “…simplifies the issue beyond that presented in the ordinary care under the Federal Employers Liability Act where the plaintiff must establish the negligence of his employer. Here it is not necessary to find negligence. A railroad subject to the Safety Appliance Act may be found liable if the jury reasonably can’t infer from the evidence merely that the handbrake which caused the injuries was on a car which the railroad was using on its line, in interstate commerce, and that the brake was not an “efficient” handbrake. Myers, 331 US at 482-83.
- A defective handbrake can be established by an injured employee’s testimony despite subsequent inspections revealing no defect.
The Myers court also discussed two recognized methods for establishing an inefficient (defective) handbrake. The first is proof of a specific defect revealed on inspection. The second is “…the testimony of the plaintiff that the brake was used in the normal and usual manner and failed to work efficiently…”. Myers at 483. According to Myers, if an employee attempts to operate a handbrake in the usual manner and is injured, his or her testimony of the failure of the brake to perform as intended is sufficient to establish a Safety Appliance Act violation for consideration by a jury or court.
There are also several common sense steps an injured employee should take if injured due to a defective handbrake. Get the number of the car so it can be identified and its repair history obtained at a later date if necessary. Report your injury to your co‑workers and the railroad as soon as practical. Get prompt and appropriate medical care. Somehow record or memorialize the steps taken leading up to and including efforts to operate the handbrake, the location of your hands and feet during the operation effort, the location of the handbrake on the car, the height and size of any brake platform, etc. Rely upon your own knowledge regarding the operation of the handbrake to determine whether a potential claim exists under the Safety Appliance Act. Inspection of the equipment after the injury is not the only way to establish a safety appliance violation according to the United States Supreme Court. If you are injured in the course of operating the handbrake take these steps to protect yourself.
The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 USC § 51, et seq., is a humanitarian statute intended to protect railroad workers from unsafe conditions and practices associated with their occupations. Its purpose has been interpreted as to adjust and allocate the cost of work-related injuries, an inescapable expense of the railroad industry, between the worker and the railroad. Sinkler v. Missouri Pacific R.R, 356 U.S. 326 (1958). “The FELA was designed to put on the railroad industry some of the costs for legs, eyes, arms and lives which it consumed in its operations.” Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U.S. 53, 68 (1949). In Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R, 352 U.S. 500 at 507 (1957), the U. S. Supreme Court noted the Federal Employers’ Liability Act “was enacted because Congress was dissatisfied with the common law duty of the master to his servant. The statute supplants that duty with the far more drastic duty of paying damages for injury or death at work due in whole or in part to the employer’s negligence … “.
The statute changed and modified the common law, and although the basis of liability is negligence, the FELA abolished the defenses of the fellow servant rule (45 U.S.C. § 51, and the doctrine of assumption of the risk. 45 U.S.C. § 54. The FELA also provides that contributory negligence does not bar recovery but merely diminishes the amount of damages recoverable by the injured employee. 45 U.S.C. 53. “What constitutes negligence and makes a railroad liable in damages under the FELA is a federal question, not varying in accordance with the differing conceptions of negligence applicable under state and local laws for other purposes, and is governed by the Federal Decisional Law.”: Urie v. Thompson, 339 U.S. 163 (1949). The basic inquiry in an FELA case is whether any negligence on the part of the railroad “played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought”. Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R., 352 U.S. at 506.
In 1893, Congress passed the first version of what is now called the Safety Appliance Act, followed in 1911 by the Boiler Inspection Act (also referred to as the “Locomotive Inspection Act”). The Boiler Inspection Act is now found at 49 U.S.C. § 20701, et seq., and the Safety Appliance Act at 49 U.S.C. § 20301, et seq. These acts standardized the safety requirements for many aspects of railroad operation. A plaintiff seeking damages under either the Safety Appliance Act or Locomotive Inspection Act need only prove a statutory violation and causation to establish liability on the part of the railroad. Kernan v. American Dredging Co., 335 U.S. 426, 432 (1958); Carter v. Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 430, 434-35 (1949). The violation “is itself an actionable wrong, and no way dependent upon negligence and for the proximate results of which there is liability – a liability that cannot be escaped by proof of care or diligence”. O’Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 384, 390 (1949); see also Brady v. Terminal R.R. Assoc., 303 U.S. 10, 15 (1938).
The defenses of contributory and comparative negligence are not available in actions based on a violation of a safety statute such as the Safety Appliance Act or the Locomotive Inspection Act. 45 U.S.C. § 53. The fact there may have been more than one cause of an injury is immaterial as long as one of the causes is attributable to the Railroad’s negligence. Heater v. C & O, 493 F.2d 1243 (7th Cir. 1974). A railroad employee may likewise recover from his employer for any injury caused, in whole or in part, by any negligence of a fellow employee. Sinkler v. Missouri Pacific R.R., 356 U.S. 326 (1958).
While state law governs purely procedural matters in an FELA case, any matter of a substantive nature is controlled by federal law as developed in federal decisions. Norfolk and Western Rwy. Co. v. Liepelt, 444 U.S. 490 (1980). The sufficiency of the evidence is a substantive matter determined by federal precedent. Brady v. Southern Rwy. Co., 320 U.S. 476 (1943).
The right to a jury trial is “part and parcel” of the FELA. Bailey v. Cent. V. Rwy. Co., 319 U.S. 350, 354 (1943). The FELA’s liberal purposes must be kept in mind when deciding an issue and derogation of the FELA’s remedial purpose of providing workers with access to courts for redress of their injuries. Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163 (1949).