Articles Posted in FELA

Lee Newsome sustained a serious injury to his right foot when a rail hanging from a crane fell on him. He was working for the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Newsome sued the railroad under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) claiming that his injuries caused him a “loss of future earning capacity.” Wisconsin Central moved for partial summary judgment on Newsome’s loss of future earning capacity, arguing that the evidence did not support his claim. The U.S. Magistrate Judge handling this case denied Wisconsin Central’s motion, holding that there was a fact question for the jury.  According to the Magistrate Judge’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the FELA allows for the awarding of damages for impairment of earning capacity.

“The FELA is a broad remedial statute to be construed liberally in order to effectuate its purpose. In addition to compensation for pain and suffering, the FELA allows damages for economic harms such as loss of past and future wages and impairment of earning capacity that result from injury.” Grunenthal v. Long Island RR Co., 393 U.S. 156, 160-62 (1968).”

There were no 7th Circuit Court of Appeals cases for the Magistrate Judge to rely on. However, there were other federal circuit court cases that stated that proofs necessary to recover future loss of earning capacity is allowed in the FELA context.

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Renardo Lynch was working as a mechanic for Metra when the top rail of a chain-link fence he was installing fell on him. He injured the back of his neck and shoulders. In a lawsuit that was filed under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, (FELA), the lower court granted a summary judgment motion brought by Metra. Lynch took this appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Lynch was hired by Metra in 1987 in the track department but was moved to bridges and building where he held a number of different positions. When Lynch was injured, he was working as a bridge and building mechanic. Part of that job was installing fences at railroad crossings and depots. Although Metra did provide some training regarding these duties, no training was given to Lynch in installing fencing.

The installation of fences was a routine job done several times per month. When Lynch was injured, he was being assisted by a co-worker installing the mesh part of the fence; they were on their knees next to each other tightening brackets at the bottom of the fence post. The top rail of the fence fell, hitting Lynch across the back of his neck and shoulders. Lynch missed 28-30 days of work. Metra acknowledged that there was nothing Lynch or his co-workers did to cause the pole to fall.

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In all negligence cases, duty is an element that must be proved to a preponderance of the evidence by the plaintiff. In Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that freight trains pose an obvious risk of harm to child trespassers, but the railroad would owe no duty of care to children for injuries suffered while trying to climb onto a moving train car. Furthermore, the Supreme Court found that whether there is such a duty under those facts exists as a matter of law for a judge to decide, not the jury, the fact-finder.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision reversed the trial court’s holding that the 12-year-old boy who had finished sixth grade, should have been smart enough to know the risks of trying to climb aboard a moving freight train. Even though the boy fell trying to board the moving train severing his foot above the toes, the Supreme Court determined that the railroad did not owe a duty of care to the child as a matter of law.

The Supreme Court raised the Second Restatement of Torts and case law going back as far as 1897. In citing these older decisions, the Supreme Court stated that, “[o]ur appellate court held long ago that it was not the duty of a railroad to keep watch and warn boys not to jump onto its cars because jumping from the ground upon a moving freight train is dangerous, and all men and ordinarily intelligent boys know it to be so.”

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An Illinois federal district court judge has ruled in favor of a railroad employee who provided a deposition and an affidavit following an injury he sustained while operating equipment that was designed to prevent runaway trains. The judge ruled that the employee’s affidavit did not squarely contradict a statement given in an earlier deposition.

The subject of the case was the injury to B.S., who hurt his shoulder allegedly because of defective equipment that the railroad should have spotted and corrected during routine inspections and maintenance. The plaintiff brought suit against BNSF under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA).

According to the lawsuit, the accident involved a safety device called a “derail,” which was designed to prevent trains from running away, reaching mainline tracks by shifting wheels off of those tracks. The derails are turned on and off by throwing a large handle.

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The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed a circuit court’s ruling regarding the venue in a railroad employee’s personal injury lawsuit. While the railroad company had wanted to transfer the case to Mississippi, the Illinois courts supported the plaintiff’s choice of Illinois as the case’s venue. Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Company, 2012 WL 19455 (Ill.App.2012).

The plaintiff, Walter Fennell, had been working for Illinois Central Railroad Company for over 35 years. In 2009, Fennell filed a Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) lawsuit against Illinois Central Railroad. The FELA lawsuit alleged that Fennell was exposed to asbestos, diesel exhaust, environmental tobacco smoke, sand, and toxic fumes, dust, and gases during the tenure of his employment, which in turn resulted in Fennell’s current respiratory problems. Fennell was seeking compensation for the health problems he allegedly developed during the course of his employment with Illinois Central.

Shortly after Fennell was filed, Illinois Central sought to have the case dismissed under the doctrine of interstate forum non conveniens, which is a legal doctrine that allows a court to deny its jurisdiction if it finds that a different forum would be more convenient and more equitable. The defendant railroad argued that Mississippi would be a more convenient and fair location on the grounds that Fennell himself lived in Mississippi, that Fennell had worked in Mississippi for the majority of his career, and because the alleged injury likely occurred in Mississippi. However, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion and affirmed Illinois’s jurisdiction in the case; the defendants appealed this decision.

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A Chicago jury awarded a train engineer damages for an injury he sustained while operating a Metra train; Clarence Hatchett v. Metra, 09 L 5185. The award came after a Cook County injury trial in which the railroad attempted to prove the train engineer was at fault for his own injury, a theory that the jury seemed to agree with – it apportioned 70% of the train accident to the engineer.

The train injury took place in January 2009, while the plaintiff, Clarence Hatchett, was employed by Metra Rail. Hatchett was about to depart from Chicago’s Union Station on Metra’s Milwaukee District North Central Line when he did what many driver’s do before departing- he tried to adjust his engineer’s seat.

At the Cook County trial Hatchett explained that he determines his seat back position based on his ability to easily reach the automatic break. However, Hatchett was unable to reach his ideal seat position because the seat back was stuck in a forward position, leaving him roughly six inches further forward than he would have liked. However, Hatchett made no further attempts to adjust the stuck train seat and departed from Union Station.

As Hatchett’s train approached the line’s track crossovers located near Franklin Park, he needed to reach back to apply the automatic break. As he did so, Hatchett heard a loud pop and felt immediate pain in his left shoulder. A later diagnosis revealed that Hatchett had sustained from a torn tendon in his left rotator cuff, for which he would require a total shoulder replacement.

Despite the prior existence of Grade III and Grade IV shoulder injuries, Hatchett attributed the rotator cuff tear to the pop he heard while reaching for the automatic break. He brought a FELA lawsuit against his employer, Metra, for the medical bills related to the injury, his lost time from work, and general pain and suffering.

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A recent Cook County personal injury lawsuit involving a railway worker who was injured at work exemplifies many of the typical components for worksite injury lawsuits. Not only were there several defendants involved whom the injured worker held responsible for his work injury, but the defendants alleged that the railroad worker was actually responsible for his own injury. It was up to the jury in James Barnicle v. Belt Railway Company of Chicago, 06 L 1325, to decide who was at fault for the railroad accident.

In order to determine who was at fault, the jury must first examine the case facts. At the time of the work accident, 48 year-old James Barnicle was working as a railroad switchman for The Belt Railway Company of Chicago. His duties involved switching railcars traveling in and out of the Exxon Mobil plant located off Cicero Avenue. However, as he was engaging a track switch, it unexpectedly jerked towards him, causing an injury to his lumbar spine.

Barnicle claimed that the specific track switch was defective and that Exxon Mobil had prior notice of this defect. Plaintiff’s lawyers attempted to establish the prior notice by submitting evidence that other employees had reported that the switch was difficult to operate and in need of repair. The idea being that if the jury believed that Exxon knew that the track switch was defective, but did nothing to repair the switch, then Exxon would be responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries.

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An Illinois Appellate Court was asked to evaluate whether a trial judge correctly adjusted a Cook County jury’s verdict in a Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) lawsuit. The jury had originally reduced the plaintiff’s award by 40% for what it determined was his contributory negligence; however, the trial judge later ruled that contributory negligence did not apply because of the unique circumstances of the lawsuit. The appellate court agreed with the trial judge, backing up his decision to restore the original $500,000 verdict to the plaintiff in Harry Balough v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation, etc., No. 1-09-3053.

The original FELA lawsuit was brought after Balough, a locomotive driver, became injured in a Chicago rail yard. Balough was boarding an engine to prepare the trains for service when a trapdoor he was standing on gave way, hitting Balough on his head. Prior to stepping onto the trapdoor Balough testified that he had followed the railroad’s rules regarding trapdoor use by first giving the door a horizontal tug prior to boarding. Balough further testified that when he did so the latched seemed firmly latched.

Yet, the trapdoor still failed, causing Balough to require stitches to his head. In addition, shortly after returning to work after the train accident, Balough began suffering from blurred vision and migraine headaches. He continues to experience both of these symptoms on a regular basis and has since been removed from his position as a locomotive driver and placed on permanent disability.

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A recent Illinois jury verdict against a railroad company illustrates the difference between Federal Employee Liability Act (FELA) claims and Illinois workers’ compensation claims. The plaintiff was a railroad conductor who suffered severe injuries after being run over by a railroad car while working. As a result of the Illinois train accident the plaintiff required amputations of both his legs.

If the plaintiff had been working for a construction company instead of a railroad company, than his injury would have been handled by the Illinois Workers Compensation Commission (IWCC) and he would have received immediate payments for his injury, medical care, and lost time from work. However, railroad employee injuries are covered under FELA, which puts the burden on the employee to prove that the injury was the result of the railroad’s negligence and not the employees.

Similarly, employers whose employees are ruled by Illinois workers’ compensation law are exempt from any lawsuits being filed against them by their employees as the result of an injury sustained at work. This protection is granted to those companies because of the assumption that if their employee is injured at work then the company will already be paying them under Illinois workers’ compensation rules.

However, under FELA, the railroads do not have to pay the employee anything if the company deems that the injury was a result of the employee’s negligence. So while the employee does not automatically receive any compensation from the railroad, the employee is also not barred from filing a lawsuit directly against their railroad employer. So while this Illinois train accident lawsuit was brought by a railroad employee against his railroad employer, Iowa Interstate Railroad, if the plaintiff had not been employed by a railroad he would not have been able to sue his employer.

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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.

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