Georgia Supreme Court Reinstates Federal Personal Injury Claims Against Norfolk Southern

Personal injury claims, such as those arising from car or truck accidents, normally fall under state law. There are some special situations in which federal law may come into play, however. For example, if a railroad employee is injured in the course of his or her work, the employee can sue the employer under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA).

Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Hartry

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently addressed a case involving the FELA, Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Hartry. This particular lawsuit arose from a June 2010 accident at a public railway-roadway crossing. The plaintiff was working as an engineer on a Norfolk Southern train.

The train approached the crossing. At the same time, another man was driving his 28-foot-long truck through the crossing. The gates had been down, but according to multiple witnesses, a number of drivers had traversed the crossing anyway because nobody saw a train coming. One witness testified that he “had traversed the crossing at least 15 to 20 times over the course” of the two days surrouning the accident. Apparently, the gates had been down for an extended period of time, even when no trains were approaching.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff’s train came through the crossing and collided with the 28-foot truck. The plaintiff sustained serious injuries in the accident. He subsequently sued the truck driver in Georgia state court, as well as Norfolk Southern. The plaintiff brought both state-law and FELA-based claims against the railroad. Essentially, the plaintiff alleged the crossing gates had malfunctioned as a result of Norfolk Southern’s negligence.

The trial court dismissed the FELA claims against Norfolk Southern, holding that the plaintiff’s arguments were “precluded” by another statute, the Federal Railroad Safety Act. The trial proceeded on the plaintiff’s state-law claims, however, and a jury returned a verdict in his favor. The plaintiff still appealed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the FELA claims.

The Georgia Supreme Court, affirming an earlier ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals, agreed with the plaintiff that the trial judge incorrectly applied the law. As the Supreme Court explained, FELA permits railroad employees to sue a railroad for negligence, which is defined by “statute and federal and common law.” The FRSA grants the U.S. Secretary of Transportation the authority to adopt uniform railroad safety regulations to “supplement” existing laws and regulations, which include the FELA. Unlike FELA, the FRSA does not create a “private right of action,” i.e., it does not permit employees to sue railroads directly for violations.

Although the FRSA does contain a clause preempting any conflicting state laws, that did not apply here, the Supreme Court said, because the FELA and FRSA are both federal statutes. Nor did the FRSA regulations “preclude,” or conflict with the plaintiff’s FELA lawsuit, as both laws were designed to promote railroad safety and reduce accidents. More to the point, the Court said it was possible that a “a railroad’s conduct may comply with FRSA regulations, yet still fall below the level of ordinary care expected of a reasonable person” under the FELA.