Supreme Court Changes Liability on Drawbar Cases

By Ron Barczak,
Senior Partner at YJB

On February 27, 1996, the United States Supreme Court handed down a major decision affecting all railroad employees who are injured while adjusting misaligned drawbars. In Norfolk and Western Railway Co. v. Hiles, the Supreme Court has limited the protection afforded to railroad employees under the Safety Appliance Act. (Please note that the decision does not affect claims alleging negligence under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.) While the decision is written in the highly technical language of the law, its impact on railroad workers is direct and significant. Fortunately, there are steps employees can take to protect themselves. This article will highlight how the Hiles decision can influence drawbar injury cases and explain what an employee should do immediately after suffering such an injury.

What Is Significant About The Hiles Decision?

Prior to the Hiles decision, numerous federal and state courts throughout the country held railroads "absolutely liable" for injuries sustained by employees who were required to go in between two railcars to manually adjust a misaligned drawbar. Railroads were not allowed to reduce their responsibility by shifting the blame to the injured employee. Under these decisions, it did not matter how and why the drawbar was misaligned for absolute liability to apply.

Unfortunately, there were other federal and state courts which interpreted the controlling law more stringently. These courts held that a misalignment of the drawbar which caused injuries is not sufficient to establish absolute liability on the railroad. Under these cases, the employee had to prove that the injury was caused by a defect in the drawbar itself, thus merely adjusting a misaligned drawbar was not sufficient to establish absolute liability.

Because of this difference in interpretation among the courts, the Supreme Court decided to settle this issue in the Hiles case. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the more stringent standard and held that absolute liability can be assessed against the railroad only when a defect is proved. Therefore, an injury occurring while adjusting a misaligned drawbar will no longer result in absolute liability unless a defect is involved.

In Light Of The Hiles Decision, What Can You Do To Maximize Your Protection?

Bear in mind that the Hiles decision does not eliminate an injured employee's right to recover for injuries but requires a showing that the drawbar was not working properly for absolute liability to apply. It is critically important to remember that drawbar mechanisms are very complicated. Many things can go wrong which may make them difficult to align and most of these problems are internal, out of the view of the worker. Because of this, most railroaders do not know what went wrong with a drawbar, only that it did not adjust smoothly and easily. Of course, you must always use safe techniques as explained in your railroad's rule books and training manuals and tapes. If, despite your best safe efforts, you are injured while aligning a drawbar, you should immediately report the injury to your coworkers and supervisor. If medical care is needed, you should arrange for it promptly.

A personal injury report should be completed as soon as possible. This report should simply state what happened. For example, you could write that the drawbar did not move in the smooth and safe fashion which it was designed to, or, if it would not move at all despite reasonable and safe efforts on your part, you should write that. Since most rail employees are not experts on the design of drawbars, you cannot be expected to know why a problem occurred, but can only report that the drawbar did not function as it was supposed to and that this failure caused your injury. If possible, consult with your local union representative or FELA attorney before filling out the personal injury report. If you are unable to do so, contact them as soon afterward as practicable. As always, a free initial consultation is available from Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, PLC, by calling toll free (800) 435-7888 or (800) 243-4253. For more information on the importance of personal injury reports, see the article "Personal injury reports: Critical to successful claims".

Taking the steps outlined above can help provide a significant measure of protection in cases involving drawbar injuries, despite the tougher standards established by the Hiles decision.

The FELA lawyers of Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, PLC invite you to contact their office for further discussion of this topic. This article is designed for general information only and should be considered neither formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer client relationship.