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.
At the time of the incident, the 19 year-old plaintiff was employed by the Iowa Interstate Railroad. He was working at switching railroad cars at a train yard in Rock Island, Illinois. While trying to repair the car’s malfunctioning uncoupling level, the Illinois plaintiff tripped near a newly installed railroad tie. While he fell parallel to the rail, he became entrapped underneath the train car’s side train.
While he was trapped a train was moving towards him on the tracks, which ended up crushing his legs. And while this young man, as a railroad employee, was definitely aware of the dangers of working around vehicles as large and as cumbersome as moving trains, there were certain safety measures that should have been in place in order to prevent this Illinois railroad accident.
It was the very violations of these safety rules that led the plaintiff to allege that the railroad had been negligent while switching cars. Perhaps the most damning of these violations was in regards to the federal radio communication rule as related to train operations. This rule requires that a train backing up in response to a conductor’s radio command stops half of the distance that he/she is told. According to the federal rule the only reason not to stop in this manner is if you receive an additional contrary command from the conductor.
In this case, not only did the engineer not follow this rule, but in fact kept going for an additional 113 feet. Upon stopping the engineer heard a grunt and a scream over his radio, which he later made the connection that this must have been right after the plaintiff was injured. The engineer thinks that when the plaintiff’s body was compressed by the train, that the force pressed the call button on his radio and allowed the engineer to hear him.
In response to the incident, the railroad initially drafted a memo stating that the plaintiff conductor was to blame for his own injury. However, the jury did not agree with the defendant railroad company and after a three-week trial returned the largest verdict for a single plaintiff on record in Rock Island County.
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