I’ve recently represented several railroad employees who suffered career ending injuries due to the failure of safety appliances on freight cars or locomotives. We were able to successfully settle the cases under the Locomotive Safety Inspection Act (Boiler Inspection Act) or Safety Appliance Act due in large part to the help of my clients’ co‑workers. All the cases involve malfunctioning equipment which had no visible defect and the railroad’s post-injury inspections did not reveal any defects in the equipment. In each case, the recollections of my clients and co‑workers were invaluable in developing our cases.
The Supreme Court recognized long ago that injured railroad employees may be at a disadvantage in proving defects in safety appliances they were injured while operating because the equipment in question is typically in the possession of the railroad following the injury. It is not uncommon for the carrier to have a safety appliance inspected at the scene of the injury by shop and management personnel and have a safety appliance removed from the car and preserved for use in any claim that arises from the injury. In order to protect employees, the Supreme Court has identified two ways an injured employee can establish a defect in a Safety Appliance/Locomotive Safety Inspection Act case. The most obvious method of proving such a defect is documenting the defect itself, a picture of a broken grab iron, sill step or hand brake, etc. The second method is to show the appliance did not perform as intended at the time of the injury, i.e. a hand brake that fails to release with the quick release handle or fails to release with normal exertion, but suddenly releases leading to injury.
Obviously pictures, reports or statements of witnesses of visible defects are examples of the most direct method to prove a defect in a Safety Appliance/Locomotive Inspection Act claim. The testimony of the injured employee and/or eye witnesses describing a malfunction in such a case is usually sufficient to establish a violation for submission to a jury. For example, in a case involving an engineer who suffered a serious back injury when the engineer’s seat collapsed, the engineer’s testimony that the seat unexpectedly dropped as he sat in the seat was sufficient to create a case under the Locomotive Safety Inspection Act. The testimony of a co‑worker that heard a "thud" and turned to see the injured employee slumped over in pain in the seat corroborated the sudden collapse of the seat. Although the carrier’s post-injury inspections revealed no defect in the seat, through the discovery process in our lawsuit we were able to identify the seat manufacturer’s recommendation for inspection and care of the seat. We also determined the carrier did not abide by the manufacturer’s recommendations for care of the seat. Following an inspection of the seat in the railroad’s lawyer’s office, our mechanical engineering expert was able to determine the railroad’s failure to properly maintain the seat and allowed dirt and lubricating materials to harden and collect in the height adjustment settings found on the seat. Our expert theorized that as a result of the failure of the height adjustment pin to properly set due to the collection of foreign materials, when the engineer leaned forward in the seat, it caused the pin to unexpectedly fall from the height adjustment setting in the seat allowing the seat to fall unexpectedly and seriously injure my client.
The point is that whenever a railroad employee is injured due to a defective safety appliance, the employee (if able) and his co‑workers should be careful to record in some manner all of the circumstances surrounding the malfunction of the safety appliance. The failure of a post-incident inspection to reveal an obvious cause of any mechanical malfunction does not mean the injured employee will be unable to prove his case. It simply means that the case will rely upon the testimony of eye witnesses and require some extensive discovery; however, with the support of the recollection of the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s co‑workers a successful recovery should still be obtainable in such cases.
About the Editors: Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm (VA-NC law offices) edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard, as well as the Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as a pro bono service to consumers. Lawyers licensed in: VA, NC, SC, WV, DC, KY, who handle car, truck, railroad, and medical negligence cases and more.