Ruling Clarifies Who Can Be Considered a “Common Carrier” & an “Employer” for FELA Claims
A widow can now move forward with two claims filed under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), bringing a complex case, that has been 5 years in the making, another step closer to a resolution. The widow is suing 11 defendants, including railroad giant Norfolk Southern Railway (NSR). Her case, which includes several negligence allegations, could be a game-changer for FELA claims, potentially expanding the types of defendants who are named in these cases in the future.
Background on the Case
Filed on January 12, 2017, Carmen Rosa Gomez v. Norfolk Southern Corporation, et al. (Case No. 2:17-cd-00231) was brought by the widow of a lift truck operator killed on August 15, 2016. According to court documents, the decedent was crushed in a work accident when a truck collapsed on top of him as he was unloading a shipping container from a railcar.
The defendants named in the lawsuit include H&M International Transportation, Inc. (H&M); Norfolk Southern Corporation; Consolidated Rail Corporation (CRC); Technical Services International; Mi-Jack Products, Inc.; Hoist Liftruck Manufacturing, Inc.; Fedex Freight, Inc.; General Cable Industries, Inc.; PMX Industries, Inc.; Brady Marine Repair Co., Inc.; and Norfolk Southern Railway (NSR).
At the time of the accident, the decedent was an employee of H&M, working at a terminal and operating a truck owned by NSC and NSR. H&M was a contractor hired by NSC and NSR to handle daily operations at the terminal.
The widow, acting both individually and on behalf of her late husband’s estate, made several allegations against the defendants, including:
- FELA claims against H&M, NSR & CRC (count 1)
- Design defect and failure to warn claims against Hoist (counts 2 and 3)
- Negligence against all defendants (count 4)
- Wrongful death, survival, and loss of consortium against all defendants (counts 5 to 7)
While some of these claims were later amended, the defendants individually answered the complaint and filed a number of crossclaims against each other.
Notably, some of the early filings from H&M and NSR were summary judgment motions, asking the court to find in their favor because these defendants both believed they should not be a party to the FELA claims.
Brief Background on FELA Claims
Enacted in 1908, FELA was aimed at addressing the exceptionally hazardous working conditions of the railroad industry. In fact, while railroad workers faced an array of life-threatening risks in decades past, modern railroad employees still get injured and killed on the job disproportionally to other higher-risk industries. According to the latest data, railroad worker injuries and deaths soared 11% in 2019.
FELA offers a federal remedy for railroad workers who are hurt by the negligence of coworkers or employers. As such, FELA is not a workers’ compensation law or a strict liability statute. Instead, it is a “negligence statute with an explicitly-stated relaxed standard of causation,” as noted by the court in this case.
Court Explains Liability Determinations for FELA Claims
In reviewing and ruling on the summary judgment motions, the Third Circuit Court explained that it uses a four-part test to determine liability for FELA claims. Specifically, the court clarified that a plaintiff bringing a claim under the Federal Employers Liability Act must show that:
- The defendant is a common carrier by railroad that is engaged in interstate commerce: The law does not provide a strict definition of what a common carrier is. This has largely been defined by the courts’ interpretations of the opened-ended statute.
- The plaintiff was employed by the defendant and was assigned to perform duties that furthered that interstate commerce: This element speaks to the fact that the injured party must have been working in the railroad industry.
- The plaintiff’s injuries were sustained while working for the common carrier: The injury-causing event must have occurred while the worker was on the clock.
- The plaintiff’s injuries resulted from the defendant’s negligence: This may include failures to comply with safety regulations, lack of employee training, failure to maintain equipment, and other actions or inactions.
In filing a summary judgment motion, H&M raised an issue with the first point, arguing that it was a contractor, not a common carrier. Therefore, H&M alleged that the plaintiff could not file a FELA claim against them.
Norfolk Southern Railway requested a summary judgment as well, also claiming that it could not be a party to a FELA claim. NSR took issue with the claim based on the second point above, arguing that it was not the employer of the decedent (H&M was the employer). Consequently, NSR’s motion asked the court to dismiss the FELA claim against the company.
Court Rules Against H&M & Norfolk Southern Railway, Ruling May Have Larger Implications
On January 25, 2021, U.S. District Judge Katharine S. Hayden denied the motions filed by H&M and Norfolk Southern Railway. Ruling on H&M’s motion, Judge Hayden noted that the company had engaged in business that was meant to directly “support Norfolk Southern’s operations; that business does not merely incidentally use rail services to accomplish its objectives—supporting rail services is the objective. Norfolk Southern, in turn, relies on H&M to fulfill its obligations to its customers.”
Elaborating on this point, Judge Hayden pointed out that common carriers are not determined in title or name alone. Instead, the law grants the courts the authority to examine the relationships companies have with each other when evaluating whether they qualify as common carriers who could be subject to FELA claims:
The test in this circuit for whether an entity is acting as a “common carrier by railroad” under FELA is open-ended and fact-sensitive and has remained so for nearly 70 years. It permits, and indeed compels, courts to recognize the substance of relationships and not just their labels.
Therefore, Judge Hayden ruled that “H&M is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law that it is not a common carrier by railroad, and its motion for summary judgment will be denied.”
Similarly, the court denied Norfolk Southern Railway’s motion. Although NSR had alleged that it only owned the terminal and did not operate the facility in an employer capacity, the court found that Norfolk Southern Railway did dictate various aspects of the day-to-day operations. NSR also had the authority to control H&M employees’ performance.
For these reasons, Judge Hayden ruled that “the Court cannot conclude that Norfolk Southern is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s FELA claim on the basis that it did not employ Gomez. As such, summary judgment is not appropriate at this stage, and the motion will be denied.”
While the court has handed the plaintiff an early win in allowing the FELA claims to proceed against H&M International Transportation, Inc. and Norfolk Southern Railway, this case could have much wider implications for future FELA claims—it may end up opening the door for plaintiffs to name a wider scope of companies as employers and common carriers in these cases. If that does end up happening, lawyers and the courts may see a spike in FELA claims in the coming years.