“What Laws Protect Railroad Workers?”
Many railroaders who suffer on-duty injuries or are the subject of unfair retaliation may be unsure of their legal rights. Fortunately, railroad employees are afforded significant rights under both federal and state law.
The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) protects railroad workers by holding employers accountable for injuries caused by an unsafe workplace or equipment. If that is proven, then the injured worker can recover money damages for lost wages, pain and suffering, disability, and disfigurement, if applicable. A FELA case can be filed in state or federal court. These lawsuits must typically be filed within three years of a traumatic injury incident. If the injury is from cumulative trauma, it can be more complicated to identify when the injury first occurred and must be filed.
To prove a working condition was unsafe or defective, evidence can show what a reasonable railroad would have provided under the circumstances. For example, if a worker trips over debris on the walkways next to the railroad tracks, evidence can show that a safe railroad would regularly inspect the track and remove debris. Testimony from coworkers about similar problems in the past or safety meeting records that document prior complaints can prove the railroad had notice of problems but ignored them. On the other hand, a railroad can try to prove the worker was also at fault or contributorily negligent by saying that a careful lookout was not made. These disputes are typically resolved by a jury at trial. If the jury decides that both sides are equally responsible or 50/50 at fault, then the injured worker’s damages can be cut in half.
However, railroads are governed by federal and state safety regulations. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has enacted many regulations that require safe components on locomotives, railcars, and tracks. For example, ladders and grab irons on equipment must be secure, hand brakes must operate efficiently, and pin-lifters must work to uncouple equipment without the need for going between them. If the railroad violates any of those regulations, then contributory negligence by the injured worker cannot be used to reduce the railroad’s liability for all damages.
Regardless, an injured railroad worker must show that the unsafe workplace or equipment caused or contributed to cause his or her injuries. However, the standard under the FELA is relaxed compared to ordinary personal injury cases. A railroader must only prove that the employer’s negligence played any part, even the slightest, in creating the railroad employee’s injuries.
Even if the worker suffered pre-existing injuries or medical conditions to the same body part injured on-duty, the employee must only show that the on-duty incident played any part in aggravating the prior problem and required additional medical treatment and time off work.
Even if a worker is unable to return to his or her job on the railroad as a result of the injury incident, the worker has a duty to “mitigate” damages. Railroad workers have a responsibility to look for work within their physical limitations in order to be productive members of society, even if it means that they cannot return to their normal railroad job on a temporary or permanent basis. For example, if a conductor is injured on duty and is unable to lift or carry more than 50 pounds permanently, he or she must attempt to find work that falls within those restrictions. Otherwise, a jury will learn that the worker was able to perform some level of work, but chose not to do so, which could hurt the case. There are exceptions however, such as significant disabilities, that may make returning to work in some capacity impractical.
B. Whistleblower and Anti-Discrimination Laws
The Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA) protects workers from “adverse actions” such as termination in response to engaging in protected activity, such as reporting a safety hazard or on-duty injury. But, such a claim must be filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within 180 days of the incident; otherwise, it will be barred.
Employees are protected from discrimination taken by an employer on account of the workers’ race, gender, age, religion, or disability. If any of those factors can be shown to result in different treatment between workers and damage results, then a legal claim can be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or corresponding state human rights agency. Much like the OSHA claims, these claims are also time-sensitive, so it is critical to make sure that claims are filed punctually.
Damages for whistleblower and discrimination claims can include wage loss, emotional distress, and attorney fees and litigation costs. That means, if you win, then the railroad may also have to pay your lawyer! In some cases, punitive damages can also be obtained.
The railroad can raise defenses to these claims, such as asserting that there were legitimate reasons for taking adverse employment actions which were not related to protected activity or status. Employees have a duty to mitigate or minimize their damages by finding alternative work, even if the railroad terminated them. In that case, the measure of wage loss is the difference between what could have been earned on the railroad and at the new job. If you have any questions about railroad employee protections and how they may affect you, please contact our team to discuss further.