Railroad Law

Railroad laws encompass all areas that are related to railroad services. Most often the cases regarding railroad laws will be wrongful death litigation by employees, passengers, or non-passengers, or personal injury cases. Another issue that arises is workers compensation for when railroad employees are injured while working.

The major (“Class I”) railroads in the United States, of which there are fewer than ten, and the multitude of regional (“Class II”) and short line (“Class III”) railroads consume types of legal services that might be needed by any business enterprise, e.g. real estate, environmental, government relations, or property law. Depending on facts and circumstances, they also can be subject to administrative worker compensation systems such as state worker’s compensation programs, the federal Black Lung Benefits Act, or the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

However, particular to railroads, therefore properly thought of as “Railroad Law,” is litigation in two areas of law: highway/railroad grade crossing litigation and occupational injury litigation under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §51, et seq.

Railroad traffic and highway traffic

Intersections between railroad traffic and highway traffic exist all over the country and are frequently the scene of collisions that result in serious personal injury and property damage, and commensurate litigation. Various provisions of state and federal law along with principles of physics, acoustics, and semiotics affect grade crossing litigation that make it an area of specialization.

A railroad whose business activity affects interstate commerce can be sued under the FELA by its employees who suffer injury from work that is performed in furtherance of interstate commerce. Effectively, this includes most railroads and all of their employees. Claims under the FELA are brought in lieu of claims under state workers’ compensation systems. The types of injuries for which railroads are sued under the FELA include “traumatic” injuries that occur from one or a few incidents and occupational diseases that are claimed to result from a long series of exposures to the disease-causing activity or substance. The FELA has been in effect for more than 100 years, and a specialized body of law has grown up around litigation under the Act.

Railroad law encompasses all legal matters that relate to railroad services. Due to the nature of railroads and trains, various legal conflicts and disputes can arise. However, it’s important to know that railroad law, as a specific area of law, doesn’t really exist. Instead, various areas of law make up railroad law.

These cases typically involve personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits brought by passengers and non-passengers alike. Workers’ compensation is another legal issue that often arises when railroad workers are injured on the job.

Issues in Railroad Law

  • Personal Injury: Personal injury encompasses injuries caused by or through the fault of the railroad service. Such claims may arise from either negligence, defective train equipment, or improper action by a railroad employee. Railroad crossing injury cases are also very common.
  • Wrongful Death: Wrongful death covers issues such as the death of a passenger, non-passenger, or employee caused through the fault of the railroad service. Such claims may arise from train accidents, such as derailments or collisions.
  • Workers Compensation: Workers’ compensation focuses on compensating employees injured on the job. Although typically a state issue, the federal statute FELA, noted below, governs disputes concerning workers’ compensation in the railroad industry. Injuries commonly arise when railroad employees inspect or work on a train.

Lastly, railroad laws may also involve various federal transportation laws, as cargo is often shipped across state lines using railroads. Shipping of contraband or other illegal substances is also a concern as well.

Workers’ Compensation in the Railroad Industry and FELA

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) serves as the exclusive remedy in an action brought by a railroad employee against his employer. FELA imposes on railroads the duty to exercise reasonable care to provide each and every railroad employee a safe place to work.

Under FELA, a railroad employee may recover the following damages for their injuries occurring on the job:

  • Lost earnings, past and future;
  • Medical expenses, if paid out of pocket by the injured employee;
  • Payment for the employee’s reduced ability to earn a wage because of the injuries suffered (“lost earning capacity”, which is different from lost earnings); and/or
  • Compensation for pain and suffering.