7th Circuit Dismisses Railroad Worker Injury Lawsuit

Indiana work injury claims are typically resolved through an employer’s workers’ compensation insurer. It’s only with disputed work injury claims that the potential need for litigation arises. There is an Informal Dispute Resolution process, and those not resolved through that can only move forward if an injured worker files an SF29109 form, at which time the case is assigned to a hearing member for the Indiana Workers’ Compensation Board. If either side disagrees with that decision, an appeal can be made to the full workers’ compensation board panel, then to the Indiana Court of Appeals and lastly to the Indiana Supreme Court. With an experienced Highland work injury lawyer focusing on your case, it may not be necessary to press it that far, but you need to know your attorney will fight for your best interests and refuse to settle if you aren’t getting fair treatment.

It is worth noting too that while workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy available for an injured employee against the employer, separate third-party claims can be asserted against non-employer defendants alleged to have been negligent in causing the accident/injury.

Still, not all workers are treated exactly the same under federal or state law. Indiana railroad workers are among them. When one of Indiana’s hundreds of railroad employees suffers a work-related injury, they must recover for injuries under the Federal Employer Liabilities Act, or FELA, as outlined in 45 U.S.C. 51, liability of common carriers by railroad for injuries to employees from negligence.

Indiana Railroad Worker Injuries: Understanding Your Rights

Prior to FELA’s 1908 passage, injured railroad workers filed common law tort actions in state or federal court for recovery of damages. FELA made it so that all railroad worker injuries are treated as negligence actions and the federal standard of care applies. The law prohibits employers from asserting that employees assume the risk of employment or that companies shouldn’t be held liable for injuries resulting from negligence by plaintiff’s co-workers. The law also replaces contributory negligence as an absolute defense with comparative negligence, the establishment of which can reduce a plaintiff’s damages. (This is all very different from Indiana workers’ compensation law, which establishes a no-fault system for injured employees to be compensated for medical bills, a portion of lost wages and more from a workers’ compensation insurer.)

Recently, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals – under which Indiana falls – weighed a railroad employee injury case under FELA. Court records show a train operator filed a state common law claim for relief against a railroad company for injuries caused by railroad equipment. His shoulder and back were injured when his seat on the train collapsed while he was operating it in Ontario, Canada. Because the injury occurred across the Canadian border, FELA did not apply, so he pursued a tort claim under state law instead.

He argued in his claim that defendants failed to provide adequate warnings of the seat’s defect, and indicated on numerous occasions during litigation that the claims surviving on appeal were those for failure to warn. He argued his employer, doing business as Canadian Pacific, should be liable under state tort laws that borrow applicable standards from other federal law (namely the Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act, or LIA). The district court rejected his argument, concluding that in arguing for relief under LIA, any state law remedy was preempted.

Plaintiff appealed, and the 7th Circuit affirmed – but for a different reason. Appellate justices agreed FELA didn’t apply because U.S. federal law doesn’t apply to injuries occurring outside U.S. jurisdiction and this happened in Canada. It’s true state-level claims for theories of liability such as defective design and failure to warn are preempted by LIA. But, the court ruled, that doesn’t stop a plaintiff not covered by FELA from relying on LIA’s standard of care applicable to defendants as part of a state law injury lawsuit. The court also found there had been nothing from Congress to indicate there should be an independent private right to sue in federal court for LIA violations. The problem here was that plaintiff waived the right to pursue a claim on the only viable theory – failure to warn – by arguing he merely wanted to “borrow” the standard of care used in LIA, but avoid the preemptions cited therein.

Injured railroad worker cited other cases – in New York and Maine – wherein railroad workers injured while the trains were in Canada were allowed to file claims for damages under state law. However, neither of those cases addressed the LIA preemption issue, nor did they hint at any legal analysis or reason that might provide this plaintiff with a viable path to recovery at this point.

Our Highland work injury lawyers recognize this overlapping of state and federal law can be very confusing for injured federal employees, including railroad workers. It’s imperative that if you are severely injured on the job – in whatever capacity – you at least consult with an injury attorney with extensive experience and success with these types of cases.

Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:

7th Circuit affirms dismissal of railroad worker’s injury suit, Aug. 28, 2018, By Katie Stancombe, The Indiana Lawyer

More Blog Entries:

Indiana Work Injury Compensation for Under-the-Table Laborers, Sept. 4th, 2018, Highland Work Injury Attorney Blog