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.