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.
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.
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.