Norfolk Southern Attempts To Weaken FELA

November 9, 2006

Norfolk Southern is one of many U.S. railroad carriers currently attempting to weaken the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), which promotes safety for rail workers. Rail labor has united to take a stand against the carrier.

According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), Norfolk Southern’s attempts to weaken FELA stem from a verdict handed down against the major carrier involving a worker who was injured on the job.

FELA Award Challenged

Timothy Sorrell worked as a trackman for the company until 1999 when he was involved in an accident while driving a company vehicle. Sorrell sustained serious permanent injuries, including ruptured disks in his back, and was unable to return to work.

Sorrell was awarded a $1.5 million FELA settlement for his injuries. However, Norfolk Southern has appealed the award all the way to the Supreme Court. Once the case was advanced to the Court, the carrier changed its argument, asking that FELA standards for causation be weakened.

“Norfolk Southern got into the Supreme Court on one premise, and now they’re arguing a different premise,” said BLET President Don Hahs.

The Real Motive

Jerry Schlichter, attorney for Sorrell, added, “Our strong view is that the railroad’s are now trying to do through the judicial system what they couldn’t do through legislation, which is the gutting of the FELA law.”

The unions are arguing that weakening the standards of causation that are applied to railroad accidents would essentially absolve carriers of liability and thus render FELA ineffective.

“One of the major purposes of FELA is to promote safety within the railroad industry,” states a joint amicus brief filed by a number of rail unions in support of Sorrell’s case. But, if Norfolk Southern wins its case, the amicus continues, “railroads would no have this duty and there would no longer be an effective deterrent to their negligence.”

FELA was passed almost a century ago to protect the rights of rail workers. For at least half that time, workers have been defending themselves against the lobbying efforts of major carriers trying to weaken or altogether eliminate the law.

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