"Let me get this straight: I'm getting sued for doing my job?"
Over the years, I have been asked this question by more than one railroader.
The fact is any time you are involved in an accident on-the-job, you are exposed to being sued personally for injuries arising out of the accident.
To illustrate this point, take the following true story. These extraordinary events were included in the U.S. District Court judge's opinion denying the railroad's motion to dismiss the case.
THE HERO GETS SUED
On July 4, 1992, an individual (who we will call "Mr. Otis Booze") was celebrating the 4th of July holiday at the "Cabooze Tavern" in Woodstock, Illinois. Between 10 p.m.-1 a.m. that day, Mr. Booze drank between 10-12 double or triple Jack Daniels and Coke. At about 12:00 midnight, after the annual Taste of Chicago fireworks show, the last Metra train departed Northwestern station loaded with passengers headed to Harvard. The train was due to stop at Woodstock at about 1:00 a.m.
A few minutes before 1:00 am, Mr. Booze stumbled out of the Cabooze, which was adjacent to the Woodstock train station. As he was walking across the pedestrian crosswalk at the station, he passed out in a drunken stupor with one leg over each rail. Minutes later the Metra train rounded a curve and was in downtown Woodstock. The locomotive engineer saw Mr. Booze laying on the track, put the train into emergency, but was unable to stop without running over him and severing both of his legs. The engineer immediately informed the conductor who jumped off the train, found Mr. Booze bleeding profusely from his legs. The conductor took his belt off to fashion a tourniquet, which saved Mr. Booze's life. The conductor was given a Golden Lantern award by the Chicago Northwestern and an award from the City of Woodstock for his heroic action.
About six months later, Mr. Otis Booze filed a lawsuit against the Northwestern, Metra, the engineer and the train crew, including the conductor who saved his life! The lawsuit alleged that negligence by the railroad and crew caused his injuries.
The railroad defended the crew and eventually settled on behalf of the railroad and the entire train crew.
This astonishing story of a hero getting sued demonstrates the general rule that it is often in the railroad's best interest to defend a railroader in a lawsuit arising from an on-the-job accident, and pay any settlement or judgment. However, as in life, there are exceptions to nearly every rule, and railroads will not always stand by their employees in court.
For an example of a railroader being sued for on-the-job conduct and getting no help from the railroad, suppose a railroad employee punches out a drunken, unruly citizen while on the clock. Because the railroad can argue that punching people out is not part of the employee's job duties, the railroad can (and most likely will) argue that it should not be responsible for any damages. The heavy-handed railroader will likely be left to fend for himself in any lawsuit.
This harsh rule can get worse in cases when a railroad sues one of its employees for damages caused by the employee's negligence. However, the law is not settled on this type of lawsuits. Some courts have allowed such claims to proceed, while others have dismissed these cases, saying that such suits are preempted by the Railway Labor Act (RLA). And sometimes the court will view such lawsuits against railroaders as a form of discipline not allowed under the union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement and RLA.
"BUT WHAT ABOUT MY OWN INSURANCE POLICY?"
Under many insurance policies, if a railroader is sued for an accident that occurs at work, neither his home-owners nor automobile insurance will cover him in the event of a lawsuit. And because the law in certain states does not require an employer to defend and indemnify its employees if the employees are sued, this could leave a railroader out in the cold.
Certain employers, such as school districts and other municipal governments, are required to defend and indemnify employees for negligence. A preexisting contractual relationship, or a specific statute, also can obligate an employer to defend its employees, so you should also examine your specific employment circumstances carefully.
What is most important is for railroaders to know their rights, and seek legal advice from FELA Designated Legal Counsel, like Hoey & Farina, if they find themselves facing difficult circumstances.
Being designated by railroad unions, the attorneys and staff of Hoey & Farina are called upon to address such difficult questions on a regular basis. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us.