Applying the Safety Appliance Act Can Help Injured Railroad Workers Succeed With Claims for Compensation

The Safety Appliance Act, or SAA, is one of the oldest and most-powerful pieces of federal legislation aimed at protecting employees who do a physically dangerous job. Enacted in 1893 and only marginally updated of the past 130 years, the heart of the SAA specifies

A railroad carrier may use or allow to be used on any of its railroad lines—

  • a vehicle only if it is equipped with—
    • couplers coupling automatically by impact, and capable of being uncoupled, without the necessity of individuals going between the ends of the vehicles;
    • secure sill steps and efficient hand brakes; and
    • secure ladders and running boards when required by the Secretary of Transportation, and, if ladders are required, secure handholds or grab irons on its roof at the top of each ladder;
  • except as otherwise ordered by the Secretary, a vehicle only if it is equipped with secure grab irons or handholds on its ends and sides for greater security to individuals in coupling and uncoupling vehicles;
  • a vehicle only if it complies with the standard height of drawbars required by regulations prescribed by the Secretary;
  • a locomotive only if it is equipped with a power-driving wheel brake and appliances for operating the train-brake system; and
  • a train only if—
    • enough of the vehicles in the train are equipped with power or train brakes so that the engineer on the locomotive hauling the train can control the train’s speed without the necessity of brake operators using the common hand brakes for that purpose; and
    • at least 50 percent of the vehicles in the train are equipped with power or train brakes and the engineer is using the power or train brakes on those vehicles and on all other vehicles equipped with them that are associated with those vehicles in the train.

A “railroad carrier” is any company engaged in transporting freight or passengers across state lines. Court cases have affirmed that nearly all rail companies, including sort lines and commuter systems, must comply with the SAA. Since our railroad injury and wrongful death law firm operates out of Virginia and assists clients in all Southeastern states ranging from Tennessee to Florida, we most often pursue cases alleging SAA violations by CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak.


Translated out of statutory language the SAA prohibits rail corporations from operating trains and running rail cars unless

  • All ladders and handholds are secure and undamaged;
  • Manual brakes work properly and have no defects;
  • Air brakes function properly;
  • Walkways are properly constructed and covered or treated to prevent slips;
  • Surfaces are free from grease, oil and other slippery substances; and
  • Wheels, trucks, gears and other components are properly installed and free from damage.

Numerous regulations detail how railroads must comply with the provisions of the SAA. Another set of safety regulations exists under the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), which, as the law’s title implies, concerns train engines and crew cabs.

Violating the SAA or LIA Creates Strict Liability for On-the-Job Injuries and Deaths

Yet one more law called the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) gives victims of preventable accidents while working on or around trains the right to seek compensation for injuries or deaths. When the plaintiff in a FELA lawsuit can show that the defendant railroad failed to comply with an applicable SAA regulation, the company is assigned strict liability. This means that the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant knew about the specific problem that led to the accident.

In one FELA case our attorneys handled, we documented the existence of a rusted and unsecured handhold. In another, physical evidence was found of a misaligned coupler. The SAA gives rail companies’ a clear duty to identify and resolve such problems. When those duties are not met, liability for compensating victims can rarely be denied.



Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia