The California Court of Appeals recently upheld a huge jury verdict for a railroad worker injured on the job. The case was Eric Doi v. Union Pacific Railroad Company. Mr. Doi sued Union Pacific (UP) under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), which protects and compensates railroad workers injured on the job. Many attempts were made to amend FELA and have railroad workers covered under workman’s compensation, but Congress has disagreed, recognizing that the work of railroad employees is especially important, and sometimes dangerous.
Eric Doi was working on a “zone gang” with fellow railman Robert Torres, when Torres lost control of the truck he was driving. Being a member of a “zone gang” required Torres and Doi to travel to various sites and states to fulfill their duties to the railroad. When the accident happened in July 2007, the truck rolled. Doi was severely injured and rendered a quadriplegic. The main issue in the suit that Doi filed against Union Pacific was whether Doi and Torres were “acting within the scope of their employment” when the accident happened. The truck rolled as the men were traveling to their hotel, although they had stopped off to pick up food and drink for the next day, when they’d be working in the Arizona desert. Faced with that issue, a jury decided at trial that the workers were acting within the scope of their employment, and that Union Pacific should be responsible. The jury awarded a $48 million dollar verdict. Almost $36 million of that award were for past and future pain and suffering.
The railway corporation appealed the verdict, claiming that the law was clear on the employment issue – they argued the men were not acting within the scope of their employment. They claimed the men made "personal choices" on when and how to travel to the hotel and on their purchase of food and beverages to consume during the work period, and were therefore not within the scope of their employment at the time of the accident. But the Court of Appeals disagreed. Explaining that the decision about the scope of employment can only be made by the jury – unless reasonable people could not disagree – the Court of Appeals explained that the workers weren’t off amusing themselves. They were doing something related or “incidental” to their employment, especially because the workers wouldn’t be allowed to leave the job site for provisions once they arrived. Therefore, the award was upheld and Doi retained the victory given to him by the jury.
This law decision matches the reality of work for men inspecting and fixing railroad track. They are "on the job" the whole time they are away from home, often all week duoing the company’s business. FELA cases for years have recognized this fact.