Our Virginia-based railroad injury client was working as an engineer for CSX in South Carolina when he suffered a foot injury severe enough to force him out of his job with the freight rail company. The injury occurred when a middle seat in the work van in which he was riding unexpectedly collapsed and fell on his right foot and ankle.
The foot had been surgically repaired years earlier following a car crash. Although our client had plates and screws in his foot, he was working full time for CSX without any restrictions. The collapsed van seat snapped a plate in his foot, which did so much new damage that he required another reconstructive surgery.
After this procedure, the railroad engineer’s orthopedic surgeon cleared him to work with significant restrictions on walking, standing and lifting that prevented him from working in and around trains. He tried to find a new job through South Carolina’s Employment Commission, Vocational Rehabilitation Department and Division of Veterans’ Affairs, but he was unsuccessful. At the time of his court trial against CSX, the former locomotive engineer was enrolled in an online educational program.
Key Legal Strategy
Rightly concerned that he may remain unemployed or underemployed for the rest of his life and reeling from the double financial trauma of medical bills and lost income, the injured former locomotive engineer filed a lawsuit against CSX. The case was brought under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act, or FELA.
FELA places a nondelegable duty on railroad companies to protect their employees from work-related injuries. The van in which our railroad injury client suffered his disabling foot injury was operated by PTI, which was then under contract with CSX to ferry train crews to and from rail yards.
Testimony presented at trial established the business ties between PTI and CSX. It was further revealed that the van in which the engineer was injured had been detailed at a local car wash earlier in the day of the accident. The PTI employee/driver who took the van to the car wash testified that even though he saw a car wash employee remove the middle row seat, he did not later check to make sure that the seat was latched back into place. It collapsed on the former locomotive engineer because it was not locked into the van floor.
Our firm’s railroad injury attorneys argued that failing to inspect the seat constituted negligence. And, because PTI was under contract with CSX, the ultimate duty to ensure that the seat was checked rested with the rail company’s management. This is what “nondelegable” means — the legal duty to do something correctly cannot be delegated even if the physical task is delegated.
In its defense, CSX stated that the PTI driver conducted a reasonable visual inspection of the van. The freight rail company also tried to convince jurors that the plate in their former employee’s foot failed due to normal wear and tear rather than the weight of the collapsed van seat. To support that contention, CSX offered the testimony of the emergency room physicians and the surgeon who treat our client right after his car crash. The intent was to get the jurors thinking that the car crash did so much damage that the collapse of the van seat was not a significant issue.
Our attorneys countered this obfuscating narrative by pointing out that the same orthopedic surgeon performed all the surgeries on our client’s foot. Three repairs following the car crash did not result in a restriction on our client’s work, but the surgery following the accident involving the van seat did necessitate restrictions that were strict enough to force the man out his railroad job.
CSX also stated that its former employer could have remained with the railroad by taking a position as a train dispatcher or yardmaster. While it was true that both jobs could be performed from a desk and that each paid about the same as a locomotive engineer position, those facts were immaterial because no such alternative positions were open in locations where our client could reasonably take them.
The trial ended with jurors awarding our railroad injury client $465,000 for his partial disability and loss of lifetime earning capacity. A separate lawsuit that CSX filed against the car wash operator resulted in that business paying the freight rail company half of the jury award.
One of the important lessons to take from this FELA case is that CSX was correctly found to be responsible for the actions of each independent contractor it hires to carry out operational activities such as transporting train crews to and from worksites. FELA offers no third-party defense when railroad employees are engaged in railroad work activities. We are pleased that we could hold CSX accountable for failing to protect its former locomotive engineer from injury.
Date: March 2013
Staff: Randall E. Appleton and two other staff attorneys