In Fletcher v. Chicago Rail Link, LLC, No. 08-1609, a recent Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) case, a plaintiff’s award was reduced by 50% after the U.S. Court of Appeals determined that the District Court had erred by not factoring in plaintiff’s liability.
Fletcher was an employee of the defendant, Chicago Rail Link, LLC (CRL), who was injured when the company-owned sports utility vehicle (SUV) he was driving collided with another vehicle within the railroad yard. The injured plaintiff sued his employer under provisions of the FELA claiming that the accident was caused by the railroad’s failure to maintain the SUV in a safe condition, or to warn him that the SUV was unsafe.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois awarded the plaintiff damages in the amount of $700,000 and found that the plaintiff was 50% responsible for the accident. Typically when both parties are found to be liable for the injury the amount of the verdict awarded is reduced by the percentage of plaintiff liability. However, in Fletcher the jury award was not reduced and remained at $700,000.
The exception to the reduction of the judgment was based upon an Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) provision that requires railroad company motor vehicles used by employees are maintained in a safe condition. Therefore, the Illinois District Court found that CRL’s failure to safely maintain the SUV that Fletcher was operating classified as an exception under 45 U.S.C. §54(a) and negated the requirement to reduce the verdict.
However, on appeal the district court’s ruling was reversed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals who found that §54(a) and 49 U.S.C. §2205(a) make it clear that state regulations or requirements are considered federal safety regulations only when they make the state a participant in the enforcement of such regulations.
The Court of Appeals found that the lower court’s analysis and findings were contrary to Congress’s determination that “laws, regulations, and orders related to railroad safety . . . shall be nationally uniform to the extent practicable.” If the Northern District of Illinois Court’s decision stood then it would create a “difference in treatment [for damages in FELA cases that] would make no sense”. In essence, the lower court’s decision would result in the FELA meaning one thing in Illinois and another thing in a different state for identical state facts.
So while the U.S. Court of Appeals then affirmed CRL’s liability they reduced plaintiff’s award by 50% in order to account for his own liability.