Railroad employees may not bring an action under these acts, but must bring it under the F.E.L.A., alleging a violation of the acts in the complaint. Regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Public Utilities Commission may have the same force and effect as the Safety Appliance Acts and result in absolute liability without contributory negligence.
The Safety Appliance Act requires that railroad cars be equipped with:
Any defect in the braking system of a train, including air hoses, air reservoirs and connecting pipes, or any other part of the braking system, constitutes a violation of the act.
In the famous silicosis case, Urie v. Thompson, the Court held that faulty sanders on an engine, from which plaintiff contended that he contracted silicosis after inhaling dust that settled in the engine cab, was a violation of the act. Since the cab of a locomotive has been held to be an appurtenance, a cab which allows an unusually large amount of diesel exhaust to seep in would undoubtedly be in violation of the act. Even though no specific defect can be alleged or proven with respect to an appurtenance of the locomotive, the mere fact that diesel exhaust fumes were present in the cab in large quantities could sustain application of the act under the rationale of Lilly v. Grand Trunk Western.
While the Safety Appliance Acts are intended to provide for the safety of railroad employees, it is also possible for a non-employee to fall within the purview of the acts.
For example, in the case of Shields v. Atlantic Coast Line an independent contractor was instructed by the consigned of a shipment to unload a tank car standing on a railroad siding. In so doing, he went with a helper to the dome running board. The board broke, and the plaintiff fell and was injured. The Court held that the act applied not only to railroad employees, but to this contractor as well, since he was entitled to use the running board to complete his job. A non-employee may not, of course, bring an action under the F.E.L.A. alleging a safety appliance violation, but he may bring a common law action citing the provisions of the Safety Appliance Act.
Appurtenances which are not clearly identified in the Safety Appliances Acts are not considered to be "appliances."
In Emig v. Erie Lackawanna, an action was brought under the F.E.L.A. by a railroad carman whose duties included inspecting railroad cars. While doing so, he found a piggyback car with a bridge plate that had dropped down and protruded outward at an angle from the car. With the assistance of a nearby co-worker, he decided to lift the 150 to 200 pound plate back into position. In order to do this, it was necessary for the two to lift the plate from waist height to shoulder height and then push it away and allow it to drop into place. The plaintiff failed to remove his fingers in time, and the end of his middle finger was crushed between the bridge plate and the car, resulting in amputation of the entire middle finger.
In finding for the railroad, the Court said the following with respect to liability under the Safety Appliance Acts:
"No part of any equipment or appliances which are covered by said act were involved in the plaintiff's injury in this case. The employer is not an insurer of its employees' safety, and negligence is not presumed by proving that an accident occurred. It must be shown that the employer, with the exercise of due care, could have reasonably foreseen that a particular condition could cause injury."
In Hercules, Inc. v. Eilers, an individual was killed and another was seriously injured when a dome lid on a tank car blew off, knocking the employees to the ground. The plaintiffs endeavored to claim that the Safety Appliance Act was applicable. The Court, finding to the contrary, said:
"As to the appliances mentioned in the Act itself, the criterion by which the sufficiency of such appliances is to be judged is the essence of simplicity. Thus, sill steps must be secure; hand brakes must be efficient; cars requiring secure ladders and secure running boards and cars having ladders shall be equipped with secure handholds or grabirons on their roofs at the top of such ladders. There is no permissible deviation from the standard so set by the Act itself as to the appliances mentioned therein. But, it is equally clear that the Act does not require a perfect car in its entirety. There is no mention, for instance, of wheels which will not break or of doors which are securely attached so as not to fall, or for that matter, dome lids which will not blow off when too much internal pressure is applied in loading a car. These latter instances of the wheels, the doors, and the dome lids find no specific mention in the Act itself."
However, in the Shields case mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court held that the dome running board, which was over seven feet long and was attached to the side of the tank just below the dome, was a safety appliance. In that case, the Court said:
"The regulations make no mention whatever by any name of 'dome running boards'. The obvious purpose of a dome running board is to provide a secure flooring for those who must perform operations in connection with the tank car dome. Clearly, the dome running board has a major importance in loading and unloading operations. But a railroad man with over 25 years of experience testified that it may also be used to stand on in order to pass hand signals or to repair minor trouble occurring while a train is in route. The dome running board is an integral part of the exterior equipment of a tank car, it functions as a permanently attached outside floor near the dome of the car. The testimony showed that railroad men, including the defendant's employees, often referred to the dome running board as a 'running board'. We hold that it comes within the meaning of the term as used in Section 2."
While there is no doubt that the Safety Appliance Acts were intended to relate specifically to cars and locomotives, there have been interesting cases holding that any railroad vehicle used as a 'locomotive' or 'car' may be subject to the provisions of the Acts.
For example, in Baltimore & Ohio Railroad v. Jackson, a section foreman was injured when his motor car, pulling a hand car loaded with tools and other equipment, derailed after striking a dog. It was held that the motor car constituted a 'locomotive' by reason of the purpose for which it was being used, and that the hand car constituted a 'car'. Since the motor car was not equipped with a power brake, and the hand car did not have handholds, ladders, sill steps, running boards or a hand brake in particular, the Supreme Court held both to be in violation of the Safety Appliance Acts.
Generally speaking, cars or locomotives must be in use to be subject to the provisions of the Safety Appliance Acts. Normally, in order for equipment to not be in use it must be out of service for major, extensive repairs or rebuilding. Equipment undergoing a routine inspection or minor repairs is still considered to be in use. The definition of "In use" is open to interpretation.
In Brady v. Terminal Railroad Association, it was held that a car was in use by the railroad that hauled a defective car to the receiving track of a connecting railroad, since the receiving railroad had not accepted and taken control of the car. However, in Patton v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, it was held that where a railroad had delivered a defective car to a shipper, it was no longer in use even though the shipper had not accepted it.
A railroad may refuse to accept a car from a shipper or other railroad if the car does not comply with the requirements of the Safety Appliance Act or relevant Association of American Railroads Interchange Rules. If the railroad does accept such a car, it is thereafter held responsible for any resulting injuries. If a car becomes defective while in use, the railroad is generally entitled to transport the car to the nearest repair point without penalty, but the railroad is not relieved from liability for injury or death caused or connected with the movement to the repair point.
Safety appliances must operate perfectly at all times, under all conditions, and one failure constitutes a violation under the Safety Appliance Acts. It is not necessary to show a specific defect in the involved appliance to establish a violation. For example, if a coupler fails to couple automatically upon impact, or does not remain coupled, the act is violated even if the cause is a defective pin lifter lever, a stiff knuckle joint, or a broken knuckle.
The mere presence of grease or oil on handholds, grabirons, sill steps or ladders does not, in itself, create a violation of the acts. However, if the foreign substance is present because of a defect in the appliance or equipment, liability may exist under the acts. Foreign substances caused to be present by the railroad, or present long enough so that the railroad should have been aware of it through its duty to inspect, may establish liability under the F.E.L.A., but not normally under the Safety Appliance Acts.
Testimony by an employee that a safety appliance was defective or did not operate properly is sufficient to establish a violation of the acts and create a question of liability. The safety appliance need only fail to operate properly at the time of the accident, and subsequent tests showing that it operated properly will not remove the issue from the jury.
Conditions other than mechanical defects or imperfections can render equipment unsafe to operate without unnecessary peril to life or limb. For example, in Speth v. Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific, recovery was allowed under the Boiler Inspection Act after the explosion of a torpedo improperly stored in the cab of a switch engine. In Lilly v. Grand Trunk Western, the plaintiff was injured when he slipped on ice which he knew was present on an engine. The Court held that the Boiler Inspection Act had been violated because the railroad was required to maintain its locomotives and appurtenances in a safe condition to operate without unnecessary peril to life or limb and the Interstate Commerce Commission rules, then in effect, required that the tops of locomotive tenders be kept clean.
The only remaining issue, once a violation is established, is whether the violation contributed to the injury. In Wright v. CNO&TP, the Court held that, although a knuckle broke and caused a train to stop suddenly, the fact that a brakeman injured his back while getting a replacement knuckle did not demonstrate a causal relationship between the safety appliance violation and the injury. On the other hand, in Coray v. Southern Pacific, the Supreme Court held that two men injured when their motor car crashed into the rear of a train that stopped suddenly and unexpectedly were covered, since there was a direct causal relationship between the sudden and unexpected stopping of the train and the resulting injuries. In the first case, a new chain of events began when the brakeman went to get the replacement knuckle. The Court stated in Coray:
"...the Safety Appliance Acts were intended to protect all who needed protection from dangerous results due to the maintenance or operation of Congressionally-prohibited defective appliances."