When it comes to legal liability and negligence, the threshold question is generally what attorneys call "duty." If I am injured in some way, I cannot recover any damages unless the person responsible for the injury had a duty of care toward me. The duties owed by a railroad employer to its workers are controlled by the FELA (Federal Employers Liability Act). Railroad employees do not get Workers’ Compensation like regular people in other industries. The major railroad companies have to provide the train crews like engineers and conductors, as well as all persons on the job, with a reasonably safe place to work. This basic FELA duty is owed to all railroaders on duty.
Proof of some negligence by the railroad is normally required under the FELA. Negligence standards sometimes are replaced with strict liability. Strict liability means basically that if you break it, you bought it. If someone is injured in certain aspects of railroad work, the railroad is automatically responsible. One such area often governed by strict liability standards is the equipment involved in the operation of locomotive engines. According to the Locomotive Inspection Act [LIA] (formerly the Boiler Inspection Act), a supplemental law to the Federal Employer’s Liability Act, interstate railroads have an absolute and continuing duty to provide safe locomotives for their workers running the trains. This legislation is intended for remedial and humanitarian purposes, and is to be construed liberally in favor of the worker.
What this means for employees of railroads is that if you are injured while on board a train, due to defective locomotive equipment, your employer is almost always liable. Note, however, that the locomotive must be "in use," though not necessarily in motion for this law to apply. Haworth v. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Ry. Co., 281 F.Supp.2d 1207 (E.D. Wash. 2003). I must reemphasize that if death or injury results from a defective condition on a locomotive, then liability is automatic.
Examples of what qualifies as defective engine equipment are broken chairs, ill-maintained brakes, or inoperative cabin lights. The injury must be caused in whole or in part by the bad equipment on the engine to come under the LIA. If an employee is injured without any defective or misused equipment being the cause, then the LIA will likely not apply.
A showing that the injury was caused by defective or misused locomotive equipment will be a powerful argument to force the railroad company to fairly compensate the worker. An LIA case is typically going to be more valuable than a regular FELA claim and command more money in settlement. As always, if you have been injured and are seeking restitution, you should consult qualified legal counsel. That counsel should be experienced and have a working knowledge of the specific legal area (railroad worker injuries). If you have been injured while operating or riding on a train or locomotive engine, that expertise should include detailed knowledge of the FELA and the Locomotive Inspection Act.
Rick Shapiro has practiced personal injury law for over 30 years in Virginia, North Carolina, and throughout the Southeastern United States. He is a Board Certified Civil Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy (ABA Accredited) and has litigated injury cases throughout the eastern United States, including wrongful death, trucking, faulty products, railroad, and medical negligence claims. His success in and out of the courtroom is a big reason why he was named 2019 “Lawyer of the Year” in railroad law in U.S. News & World Report's Best Lawyers publication (Norfolk, VA area), and he has been named a “Best Lawyer” and “Super Lawyer” by those peer-reviewed organizations for many years. Rick was also named a “Leader in the Law, Class of 2022” by Virginia Lawyers Weekly (total of 33 statewide honorees consisting of lawyers and judges across Virginia).