If you work for a railroad, you have rights under a unique law known as the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (a.k.a. FELA). Enacted in 1908 specifically to allow railroad workers to pursue compensation following on-the-job injuries and illnesses, FELA is often described as a workers’ compensation system or a disability insurance program. It is neither.
Instead, FELA creates an obligation for railroad corporations involved in interstate commerce to pay injury and wrongful death claims directly to their workers who are hurt or become ill as a proximate result of doing their jobs. Unfortunately, many railroads attempt to shirk this responsibility so pursuing compensation under the FELA often requires filing a civil lawsuit and convincing a jury that a railroad was negligent or reckless in failing to keep an employee safe and healthy.
The railroad attorneys with Shapiro, Appleton & Duffan have decades of experience helping injured railroad workers pursue compensation under the FELA. One of the most common arguments FELA defendants use involves asking a judge to dismiss a case because no accident report was received. The argument goes like this: “Because the plaintiff never alerted managers or corporate executives of the problem, no one can be sure that hazardous conditions existed and harm resulted.”
Under FELA, this tactic should rarely, if ever, work. Many good reasons to file accident reports exist, and those are discussed below. At the same time, FELA places no requirements on the injured worker to make a report following an incident that left them injured or ill.
Many FELA Protections Would Be Unavailable if Accident Reports Were Required
A significant number of FELA claims arise from occupational illnesses. Railroad employees are particularly prone to developing cancers and mesothelioma late in their careers or after they retire. Those risks come from years of exposure to diesel fumes and asbestos fibers, as well as from radiation exposure and working around all kinds of industrial chemicals.
Diseases like cancer and mesothelioma do not develop in an instant. No one could believably point to a specific day and time when he or she breathed in the asbestos fiber that triggered their late-in-life fatal illness. For this reason alone, whole categories of work-related health conditions would be excluded from compensation under FELA if the law mandated incident reporting in all instances. This became a particular issue in a case Shapiro, Appleton & Duffan won for the widow of a lifelong railroader who died from multiple forms of lung cancer decades after working in exceedingly unhealthy conditions.
What FELA does require is that a plaintiff file a claim within three years of learning that he or she suffered an injury or received a diagnosis. Rail corporations will question the start of the statute of limitations clock in much the same way that they question the lack of an accident report, a but a skilled and experienced FELA plaintiff’s lawyer will be able to answer such questions.
Filing an Accident Report Can Be a Good Idea
While invoking FELA rights and succeeding with a claim for compensation does not depend on filing an accident report, submitting official paperwork following a physical injury or major exposure on the job can prove beneficial.
First, work rules generally call for making reports of dangerous incidents and unsafe conditions. Complying with such rules prevents suspensions and terminations for withholding information from supervisors. Second, filing an accident report makes it easier to receive excused absences from work, paid time off for treatment and recovery, and insurance coverage. Having a paper trail that begins with an official accident report can make navigating other parts of the return to health and work easier.
Beyond personal benefits, details contained in an accident report can guide a railroad in correcting problems with equipment, procedures and working conditions. A smart and responsible employer will use accident reports as prompts to avoid future accidents.
What Happens if a Railroad Does Not Welcome Accident Reports?
The best case scenario has a railroad acting constructively in the wake of an accident report. Too often, however, a company will look for ways to punish an employee for calling attention to problems. There may be few ways to know when an accident report will be received badly, so it is usually worth filing paperwork after an injury or obvious exposure.
When a pattern of harassment, a demotion, or a firing follows the filing of an accident report, the worker who has been retaliated against should speak with an attorney who specializes in representing rail employees. Whistleblower protections for railroad workers are enforced by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which has a strong track record of holding rail corporations accountable for mistreating employees. Cases brought by OSHA on railroaders’ behalf often bring judgments that included tens of thousands of dollars in punitive damages.
Richard N. Shapiro is a partner at Shapiro, Appleton & Duffan in Virginia Beach, Va. He is certified as a Civil Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy, a prolific inventor and product designer, and has litigated wrongful death, trucking, faulty products, railroad and medical negligence claims throughout the Eastern United States.
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Company Name: Shapiro, Appleton and Duffan
Contact Person: Richard
Address:1294 Diamond Springs Rd.
City: Virginia Beach
Country: United States