"I slipped on the ice", or "I slipped in the snow." Those words on an Injury Report describing how your work injury occurred will diminish the value of your claim if not eliminate it altogether.
The reason is the presence of ice or snow does not by itself establish liability for which the railroad is responsible under the FELA - Federal Employers' Liability Act.
Ice and snow occur naturally in nature and are sometimes referred to as an "Act of God." Inasmuch as we all know that the railroad is not God, a natural accumulation in and of itself is not alone a negligent act of the railroad.
Generally, the railroad has a duty to provide stable footing in areas in which you are required to perform your work, however, oftentimes more is needed if the railroad is to be held responsible for your injury. It could be an unreasonably long time between the end of the snow fall and removal operations are completed. For example, if the snow stops falling on Friday afternoon and by Sunday, when you report for duty, the snow has not been shoveled or treated on the walkway, or along the switching lead, there may be liability based upon unreasonable delay.
The railroad also has a duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work equal to the risks of the area.
Therefore, the duty to remove snow is greater in a Yard area where the risks are greater to railroaders from such hazards. Railroads also have duties pursuant to published “Emergency Snow Removal Plan,” or other such safety rules. Thus, the railroad’s failure to salt or sand an area, or in some cases shovel or otherwise remove the snow, may be considered railroad negligence.
An unnatural accumulation of ice or snow, of which the railroad knew, or should have known, also can be the basis of FELA liability. Here are several examples:
- there is no gutter on the Yard office, or, if there is one, it leaks and melted water collects on the sidewalk
- a downspout discharges water across the walkway and then freezes and remains untreated, or hidden, by a later snowfall
In these examples, the railroad negligence is the failure to install or repair gutters when it reasonably knew, or should have known, that runoff from the roof would create a slipping hazard. The resulting black ice was not apparent as you walked along or it was covered by the new snow fall, so even though you were being careful and looking where you were walking, you fall and get injured. Take another example: a switch located in a low area that collects water in the summer. The switch is located right where you must stand in order to line it. The area will also collect melt water in the alternating freeze and thaw of winter. Again, even though you are being careful, you slip and twist your knee. Here, the railroad’s negligence is the underlying condition of poor drainage, which the railroad failed to remedy, may create liability.
Snow blowing past a defective door seal on a locomotive or coach resulting in a slipping hazard on the floor may be the basis of liability. Not every piece of snow or ice covered equipment is the responsibility of the railroad, but if the railroad furnishes you with a locomotive at the beginning of your run with the steps and walkways covered with snow and ice, there may be liability if you slip and are injured. Before accepting such a locomotive, you should let the Yardmaster or Shop foreman know of the condition and request that it be cleaned before you attempt to board it. If your request is denied and you are ordered to take the locomotive, as is, there may well be FELA liability.
Sometimes snow removal operations themselves create dangerous working conditions. The railroad plows the snow on a roadway or in a parking lot next to a track and in the process piles it where you must walk or line a switch. This also happens when you are on the property of an industry where you are switching. Industry employees generally have no idea of how you do your job and just pile the snow anywhere that is not in their way. Remember the railroad is responsible for your safety even if you are on a shipper’s property. Be sure to report unsafe industry practices when you first become aware of them so that later when someone is injured, the railroad won’t be able to say that it had no notice of the unsafe condition.
These are only some of the situations you can run into that involve ice or snow, but we hope you get the idea that there is a lot more to injuries caused by slipping than are obvious without closer inspection and a knowledge of what conditions do and do not result in FELA liability. That's what Hoey & Farina is here for. We know the FELA law and can advise you as to your potential work injury claim. Don't just write on an accident report, "I slipped on the ice or snow." Look to see if an underlying condition caused an unnatural accumulation and report that as well.
Remember, you may not need a lawyer but you do need legal advice.