Supreme Court upholds Rail Labor's position on FELA

In a unanimous judgment, the United States Supreme Court issued a favorable decision in Norfolk Southern vs. Timothy Sorrell on January 10, 2007. In this case, the carriers attempted to use the nation's highest court to gut the Federal Employees Liability Act.

The carriers' actions stem from a U.S. Supreme Court Case, Norfolk Southern vs. Timothy Sorrell. Lower courts awarded a $1.5 million FELA settlement to Sorrell, a trackman for the Norfolk Southern who was injured in 1999 when the company vehicle he was driving was run off the road by another company vehicle.

Sorrell suffered ruptured disks in his back and other permanent injuries that prevented him from returning to his railroad job. Sorrell, whose wife has multiple sclerosis, lost his job and health insurance as a result of the accident, and still suffers debilitating back pain during most everyday activities.

After losing cases in lower courts as well as appeals courts, Norfolk Southern argued the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sorrell's case was argued by Jerry Schlichter of Schlichter, Bogard & Denton in St. Louis.

NS advanced the case to the Supreme Court based on the railroad's argument that the negligence standards for railroads under FELA should also be used to determine employee negligence under FELA.

However, once before the Supreme Court, NS argued that the Court should modify FELA by ruling that a higher standard for accident causation should be employed - completely ignoring their original arguments for getting to the Supreme Court in the first place. The Chief Justice John Roberts rejected this attempt in his opinion, writing:

"Norfolk's attempt to expand the question presented to encompass what the FELA causation standard should be, not simply whether the standard should be the same for railroad negligence and employee contributory negligence, is rejected. This Court is typically reluctant to permit parties to smuggle additional questions into a case after the grant of certiorari. Although the Court could consider the question of what standard applies as anterior to the question whether the standards may differ, the substantive content of the causation standard is a significant enough issue that the Court prefers not to address it when it has not been fully presented."

Weakening the causation standards for rail accidents would make the rail carriers virtually blameless for accidents, rendering the FELA powerless.

"It is extremely rare to appear in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and I am pleased that we were successful on behalf of railroad workers," Schlichter said. "This also shows the importance of elections because the members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President and I expect the railroad industry will try to bring this issue back at some point in the future before the Supreme Court."

BLET National President Don M. Hahs called the court's decision "a major victory for all rail workers," and thanked attorney Jerry Schlicter for his hard work on the case.

FELA was enacted in 1908, and for the past 50 years, Rail Labor has resisted lobbying efforts by the railroad industry to abolish or weaken FELA. In addition, FELA was intended by Congress to be a way to facilitate compensation of workers who are injured or killed in the course of their railroad employment.

 

 

© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen