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I've Been Injured on the Railroad: Now What?

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on August 31, 2012 4:02 PM

A lawyer generally needs to plead the facts of a tort claim with specificity, but a plaintiff can survive summary judgment in a Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) claim, even when a few facts are missing.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a railroad employee can proceed with his claim against Norfolk Southern Railway Company (Norfolk Southern), even though he couldn't identify the rail car that allegedly caused his injury.

The Eleventh Circuit recounted the facts behind the appeal with a musical flare:

On July 23, 2009, Connie Strickland had been "working on the railroad / All the live-long day." In fact, he claims he was working his customary twelve-hour shift when, towards the end of that shift, he suffered a massive shoulder injury as a result of a faulty handbrake. Strickland, however, could not identify the rail car on which the handbrake was installed. Nonetheless, he filed suit against his employer, Norfolk Southern.

Strickland sued under FELA, alleging that Norfolk Southern was negligent in failing to provide him with safe and adequate equipment, tools, assistance, and the like. He also claimed, under FELA and the Federal Safety Appliance Act (FSAA), that "inefficiencies" of the handbrake in question caused his injury and that Norfolk Southern was liable.

Norfolk Southern moved for summary judgment, contending that there was insufficient evidence to support Strickland's claims, and that it had no way to defend itself against the claims because Strickland could not identify the particular rail car on which he was injured.

Noting that an employee may recover under the FELA if his employer's negligence "played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought," Strickland argued that summary judgment is disfavored in FELA actions. Strickland claimed that the determining factor in his action was neither whether he could identify a "mechanical defect or broken part" in the handbrake at issue, nor whether he could identify the number of the car on which the handbrake was installed; instead, the issue was whether his testimony alone constituted sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment.

The district court ruled that it was not, and granted Norfolk Southern's request for summary judgment.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case this week.

The appellate court wrote, "No authority exists for the proposition that the failure to identify the rail car, standing alone, provides a sufficient basis for summary judgment in Norfolk Southern's favor. While Strickland's failure to identify a specific rail car may hinder Norfolk Southern's defense, Norfolk Southern cited no authority ... that would have supported the granting of a motion for summary judgment on such a basis. Nor were we able to locate any controlling or persuasive authority authorizing such action."

The court further observed that Strickland had satisfied the "featherweight" standards of a FELA action to survive summary judgment.

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