Railroad Can Argue Contributory Negligence Where FELA Provision Not Enacted “For Safety Of Employees”

Following a train collision caused at least in part because a train was moving 33 miles per hour in an area where speed was restricted to 20 miles per hour, a railroad terminated the engineer and conductor.  The conductor, who had sustained injuries from jumping off the moving train before the collision, brought suit under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) for negligence and under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.  The conductor argued that the railroad could not assert a defense of contributory negligence.  An employee’s recovery under FELA may be diminished in proportion to the employee’s contributory negligence unless “the violation by such common carrier of any statute enacted for the safety of employees contributed to the injury or death of such employee.”

The conductor argued that the railroad violated 49 CFR 240.305 and that this regulation was enacted for the safety of employees to prevent the railroad from asserting his contributory negligence.  That regulation provides, “It shall be unlawful to: … (2) Operate a locomotive or train at a speed which exceeds the maximum authorized limit by at least 10 miles per hour.  Where restricted speed is in effect, only those violations of the conditional clause of restricted speed rules (i.e., the clause that requires stopping within one half of the locomotive engineer’s range of vision), or operational equivalent thereof, which cause reportable accidents or incidents under part 225 of this chapter, shall be considered instances of failures to adhere to this section.”

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, however, agreed with the railroad and concluded that this regulation was not a statute enacted for the safety of employees.  The court reasoned that neither the text of the regulation nor the stated purpose leads to the conclusion that the regulation was enacted for the safety of employees.  If the court held otherwise, it explained that a conductor or engineer could purposefully violate the regulation and cause damage to himself without repercussion for his own actions.  In other words, the court could not agree that a regulation that addresses the qualifications of locomotive engineers and addresses their prohibited conduct could also insulate employees from their own negligence.

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