The Federal Employers' Liability Act, or FELA, places on railroads such as Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern a nondelegable duty for providing their employees safe places to work. This duty to protect the health and lives of rail workers exists even when people employed by a railroad go onto the premises of a business or travel through rights-of-way over which the railroad for which they work has no control.
Courts have upheld this essential tenet of FELA in several major cases, including Empey v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad Co., 869 F 2d 293 (6th Cir. 1989); Cazad v. C & O. Railway Co., 622 F 2d. 72 (4th Cir. 1980); Carter v. Union Railroad Co., et al., 438 F 2d 208 (3rd Cir. 1971); Chicago Great Western Railway Co. v. Casura, et al., 234 F 2d 441 (8th Cir. 1956); Nivens v. St. Louis Southwestern Railway Co., 425 F. 2d 114,120 (5th Cir. 1970); and Schiller v. Penn Central Transportation Co., 509 F. 2d 263, 269 (6th Cir. 1975). The Schiller decision, in particular, made it clear that railroad companies could be held liable for negligence in not protecting their employees even when they do not own, control or have the principal obligation for maintaining the premises on which an employee suffered a work-related injury, fatality or disease such as cancer.
Perhaps the most direct and binding precedent relating to a railroad's nondelegable duty for keeping an employee uninjured and alive comes from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Sinkler v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Company, 356 U.S. 326 (1958). The plaintiff was a cook who had been working in a rail car owned by his employer, Missouri Pacific. The cook suffered injuries when another railroad, Houston Belt & Terminal, that was operating the car under contract switched it violently.
The Court stated, "When a railroad employee's injury is caused in whole or in part by the fault of others performing, under contract, operational activities of its employer, such others are ‘agents' of the employer within the meaning of Section 1 of FELA." Under Sinkler, then, a railroad employer may not point the finger at a third-party contractor and avoid being held liable for negligence that led to an injury to one of their employees.
The Supreme Court made its views on the nondelegable nature of railroads' duty to protect rail workers even clearer in Shenker v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co., 374 U.S. 1, 7 (1963). The justices expanded the Sinkler ruling by noting, "The ‘brevity of the sojourn' [onto property owned by a third party] is irrelevant with respect to the duty to provide a safe place to work, even though the opportunity to discover defects is obviously seriously lessened. The employer may protect itself by simply refusing to permit its employees from going on the property."
Taken together, the text of FELA and numerous court decisions interpreting the extent of rail employee protections under the federal workplace labor law, make it clear that a railroad owes a duty its employees to provide safe workplaces and working conditions. An employee need not look elsewhere for protection.
Learn more: As Virginia and Carolina attorneys specializing in FELA and railroad injury law, we offer hundreds of pages of information to help you learn your rights and recover compensation if you've been hurt on the job, riding trains or crossing rail tracks. You may find our list "What Not to Do After a Railroad Accident" especially helpful.