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Employer Duties Under the F.E.L.A.

Duty to Inspect

It has been held that the railroad should inspect its premises to determine that conditions are safe. Perhaps the most significant case on this subject is Lowden v. Hanson, in which a switchman was injured while attempting to line a switch when the handle broke due to a structural defect. There was no evidence to show that the railroad had notice of the defect. However, there was testimony that the defect could have been detected by tapping the handle with a hammer, which would have produced a dull sound if there was a crack.

The court held that the railroad, through its foremen or supervisors, has a duty to inspect and discover any defect that might result in injury, even though the defect should be obvious to the injured employee. The courts have also held that an employee is not required to prove that the railroad had actual or constructive notice of an unsafe condition. The presumption is that the railroad has notice, since it controls the workplace and the assignments employees must perform.

Duty to Guard Against Intentional Acts

The railroad's obligation to furnish a reasonably safe workplace extends over intentional acts by other employees or outsiders.

In the case of Lille v. Thompson, the Supreme Court allowed recovery by a woman who was attacked by someone not employed by the railroad. This young woman worked alone in an isolated part of the railroad yard between the hours of 11:30 P.M. and 7:30 A.M. One night, there was a knock at the door, and when she opened it a man entered and beat her with a piece of iron, causing permanent injuries.

The railroad and lower court were of the opinion that there was no causal relationship between the injury and the railroad's failure to light or guard the premises, and that the law did not permit recovery for intentional or criminal acts of either fellow employees or outsiders. However, the Supreme Court found that the railroad failed to exercise its duty to take reasonable measures to protect the plaintiff against a foreseeable danger, and found that plaintiff's injuries resulted from the railroad's negligence.

The same principle applies if an employee is assaulted by another employee whom the railroad knew, or should have known, was potentially dangerous to others.

A leading case on this point is Harrison v. Missouri Pacific, involving injuries caused by an employee the railroad knew, or should have known when it hired him, was "hot tempered" and likely to settle his disputes with his fists. In this case, the railroad was found liable for injuries caused by that employee's intentional acts.

Duty to Warn

The courts have also held that railroads have a duty to warn employees of any hazardous or unsafe condition or circumstance when such condition is or should be known to the railroad. This principle is set forth in Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis v. Howell, involving an employee who was injured while attempting to close a defective car door.

The railroad contended the employee should have recognized the fact that the defective door presented a hazard and that failing to do so caused his own injury. The court held that the injured employee's foreman knew, or should have known, that the defect presented a serious hazard and, since he failed to warn the employee, he had failed to furnish the employee a reasonably safe workplace.

Duty to Provide Training

A railroad can be held liable for injuries resulting from inadequate training or inexperience if it can be shown that a job required training and that the failure of the railroad to provide it resulted in injury. In Quirin v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, the plaintiff was awarded damages when he demonstrated that his injuries resulted from being assigned to perform work for which he had no training or experience.

Duty to Provide Supervision

The railroad is expected to furnish employees with reasonable supervision. Supervisors, of course, act as the railroad's agents and are expected to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries to subordinates by inspecting for hazards, warning of unsafe conditions or practices, ensuring that proper training is given, and generally supervising the work of their subordinates.

Duty to Provide Help

An injured employee may show that the railroad failed to furnish a reasonably safe workplace by not providing enough help or by requiring an employee to perform a task which exceeds his physical capabilities.

In Thompson v. Texas & Pacific, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff made a prima facie case of showing negligence when she lifted a mail bag which was too heavy for her and suffered a back injury.

In Perey v. Union Pacific, the railroad was found negligent for not supplying sufficient help when employees assigned to lift rails could not hold one because of its weight, dropped it and injured the plaintiff.

Further, in Bourquet v. Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Court held that the plaintiff's failure to ask for assistance did not bar recovery.

Duty to Provide Safe Equipment

Employees are entitled to introduce evidence showing that the equipment provided by the railroad was not reasonably safe for the intended purpose.

In Carpenter v. Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, an employee was killed when the motor car he was riding on was struck at a public crossing. The motor car was insulated and did not activate the crossing signals. It had no whistle, bell, or other warning device and was being operated at a slightly higher speed than authorized by the Company's rules. The rules required that motor car operators yield to highway traffic and that they be flagged over crossings in dense traffic.

A judgment for the railroad was entered at the trial court level. However, the Appellate Court reversed the decision and stressed the duty of the railroad to use reasonable care in furnishing its employees with a safe place to work. The Court said:

"...the Federal Employers' Liability Act is to be given liberal construction in order to accomplish its humanitarian purposes."

Duty to Provide Safe Tools

When the railroad furnishes tools that are not reasonably safe or suitable, it is liable for injuries sustained by those who use them. This decision arose from the case of Chicago and North Western v. Bower in 1916. Further, in Tiller v. Atlantic Coast Line, the Court held that the employers' duty regarding tools is present even if the tool is one of simple construction and even though the injured employee is in a better position than the railroad to discover a defect.

Accordingly, the "Simple Tool Doctrine" under the common law, which provides that there can be no charge of negligence resulting from the use of simple tools, does not apply under F.E.L.A.

Duty to Enforce Safety or Departmental Rules

There are cases which deny the railroads the defense of contributory negligence if they do not enforce their safety rules. Railroads must make every effort to enforce their rules and regulations, and failure to do so constitutes negligence. For example, if the railroad's rules prohibit "dropping" cars during switching operation, but it makes a practice of doing so, it is likely to be held liable for any resulting injuries. The railroad obviously will fail in attempts to charge an injured worker with contributory negligence for violating an unenforced safety or departmental rule.

Unreasonable Work Quotas

Railroads have been held liable for injuries resulting from employees being caused to hurry in order to meet work quotas. In the case of Davis v. Virginian Railway Company, a switchman who was injured when he was required to hurriedly perform a switching operation was allowed a recovery. In McMillan v. Western Pacific Railroad, a dispatcher was awarded damages after he was worked so hard that he collapsed.

Safer Methods to Do Tasks

Employees are entitled to introduce evidence to the effect that there are safer methods of doing the same task. For example, in Margevich v. Chicago and North Western, the Court held that plaintiff could show that other railroads did the same type of work in a safer manner than the defendant. The true test is "did the railroad exercise due care?" Once a safer method of doing the job has been established by testimony, a jury question has been created.

Climatic Conditions

As a general rule, the railroad is not responsible for injuries resulting from climatic conditions such as snow or ice. However, in the case of Fort Worth and Dallas Railway v. Smith, the Court held that the railroad must

"...exercise a degree of care commensurate with the risks to prevent the accumulation of snow and ice in such quantity, form and location as to be a menace to the safety of its employees."

The Court held that the railroad's negligence was its failure to remove the ice and snow or to compensate for it by spreading sand or salt. The length of time that the condition existed prior to the injury is usually the critical factor in determining whether the railroad breached its duty to an employee. Further, the employee does not have to slip and fall to be injured by climatic conditions. Recovery has been allowed when the employee spent an extended period of time exposed to cold weather and suffered frostbite.

In Dennis v. Denver & Rio Grande Western, the Court held that the plaintiff, a section laborer who lost two fingers because of frostbite after working outside in cold weather, was entitled to one-half of his damages because the railroad and the plaintiff were equally negligent. Injury can, of course, result from exposure to heat as well as cold. Again, the test is: "did the railroad exercise due care?"

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