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"Safe Place to Work" & Disorders

Cumulative Trauma

As opposed to personal injuries resulting from a single trauma accident, such as a slip and fall, railroad employees have historically been exposed to conditions or substances that, over a period of time, have produced illnesses or disabilities. Cases of this type are known as "cumulative trauma disorders." Some examples of these disorders include:

  1. Silicosis from dust inhalation.
  2. Asbestosis from the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
  3. Hearing loss from prolonged exposure to excessive noise.
  4. Carpal tunnel syndrome - produced by repetitious and prolonged use of the hands, causes compression or entrapment of the median nerve running through a "tunnel" in the wrist and produces burning pain, numbness and loss of strength in one or both hands.
  5. The full effects of prolonged exposure to excessive levels of other potentially hazardous substances, including diesel and welding fumes, are still being studied.

Cumulative trauma disorders may manifest themselves in other parts of the body, such as those resulting from years of hanging on the side ladders of freight cars, lifting heavy materials or walking on uneven surfaces like ballast.

Prolonged and repeated exposure to such conditions may cause "wear and tear" injuries to the back, shoulders, knees, or other joints to the extent that the employee is forced into early retirement or another line of work.

In order to prove that the railroad is liable for cumulative trauma disorders, it must first be shown that the railroad violated its legal duty to provide a reasonably safe work place (as discussed in previous sections). If this can be done, it is then necessary to prove that the railroad's negligence contributed to the disorder.

Obviously, cumulative trauma disorder cases are more difficult to prove because exposures away from the work place, as well as congenital (inherited) conditions, and the extent to which they contributed, must also be considered. For example, we have all been exposed to excessive noise from such sources as firearms, lawn mowers, musical concerts or power tools. Similarly, we have all subjected our joints to trauma while participating in sports, jogging, or lifting things around the house. In addition, other health problems that cannot be related to the work place often produce the same or similar disorders.

The railroad, of course, will make every effort to demonstrate that a cumulative trauma disorder is the consequence of an inherited condition or exposures away from the work place. Cases of this type require an extensive medical, employment and personal history investigation, and it is often necessary to apportion the work-related and non-work exposures in order to determine what damages, if any, may be recovered.

Emotional Stress

The F.E.L.A. makes no distinction between physical and emotional injuries as indicated in Section 1 of the act:

"Every common carrier by railroad...shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier...for such injury...resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier...".

However, it is extremely difficult to recover damages for emotional injuries in view of recent Supreme Court decisions in such cases.

One such example is the case of Carlisle v. Conrail where a trainmaster sued his employer on the basis that he was required to work under unreasonably stressful conditions. While working 12 to 15 hour shifts for weeks at a time, he began to experience insomnia, headaches, depression and weight loss.

The Third Circuit court found sufficient evidence that Conrail had breached its duty to provide the plaintiff a safe workplace by making his employment too demanding, thus causing the plaintiff's injury. It awarded damages to the plaintiff, holding that:

"..when it is reasonably foreseeable that extended exposure to dangerous and stressful working conditions, the employer may be held liable under the F.E.L.A. for the employee's resulting injuries."

However, the United States Supreme Court set aside this decision, holding that an employee does not have an emotional stress case simply because he is given too much (as opposed to too dangerous) work to do.

Since 1987, courts have used the following rules in the analysis of the negligent infliction of emotional injuries:

  • Physical Impact Rule - requires a touching, no matter how slight. For example, an employee who is verbally abused by his foreman cannot recover unless shoved or stuck by the foreman.
  • Physical Manifestation Rule - requires that an emotional injury be accompanied by a physical injury of some kind. There can be no recovery for purely emotional injuries under this rule.
  • Bystander Rule - requires that an employee must be present at the accident scene (or where the negligent act took place) and closely related to the victim. This seldom applies in F.E.L.A. cases because few workers are closely related.
  • Zone of Danger Rule - requires that an employee must be close enough to the negligent act to fear physical harm. Proximity is not clear in this rule. For example, a track worker near a head-on collision may be able to recover if close enough to have been injured and actually threatened with injury. However, if a little further away and not actually threatened with injury, there probably would be no recovery there.

One example of the zone of danger rule can be found in the case of Gottschall v. Conrail. The plaintiff was a member of a maintenance of way crew assigned to replace a section of defective track on an extremely hot and humid day. One of his co-workers and a longtime friend collapsed. The co-worker was revived after a cold compress was applied at which time the crew supervisor ordered the men to stop giving assistance and return to work. Five minutes later, plaintiff saw his friend stand up and collapse again. Realizing that his friend was having a heart attack, plaintiff went to his aid once again, beginning cardiopulmonary resuscitation. By the time paramedics arrived at the scene, plaintiff's friend had died. Paramedics covered the body with a sheet, ordered that it remain undisturbed until the coroner could examine it, and directed the work crew to remain at the scene until the coroner arrived. The crew supervisor ordered the men back to work, in sight of the covered body. The coroner, who arrived several hours later, reported that plaintiff's friend and co-worker died as a result of a heart attack brought on by the combined factors of heat, humidity and heavy exertion. The experience caused plaintiff to suffer from major depression, nausea, insomnia, cold sweats and repetitive nightmares. He lost a great deal of weight and suffered from suicidal preoccupation and anxiety.

The district court granted summary judgment to Conrail in the Gottschall case, holding that the F.E.L.A. did not provide a remedy for plaintiff's emotional injuries. However, the Third Circuit court of appeals reversed the decision, contending that plaintiff had made a sufficient showing that his injuries were genuine and severe and giving preference to the liberal recovery policy of the F.E.L.A., stating: "Doctrinal common law distinctions are to be discarded when they bar recovery on meritorious F.E.L.A. claims."

The United States Supreme Court's decision in the Gottschall case declared that no special rules are necessary to restrict emotional injury cases, and that juries and judges can determine which cases are genuine. The Court's decision adopted the Zone of Danger test for all cases involving negligent infliction of emotional distress under the F.E.L.A.

Unfortunately, the decision does not furnish any clear definition of the Zone of Danger rule.

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