Personal Injury Reports - Critical to Successful Claims

By Ron Barczak,
Senior Partner at YJB

Personal injury reports may seem like routine documents but, in reality, when and how they are filled out can have a dramatic impact on the success of your injury claim and your future.

There are at least two reasons to carefully complete the report. First, company rules on virtually all railroads require an accident report be completed as soon as practicable after an incident. Failing to do so can lead to discipline ranging from a reprimand to termination. Second, the report is a key document in any personal injury claim because it is usually completed by the injured worker close to the time of the accident. Because of this, lawyers, claim agents, and ultimately judges and juries, will examine the document very closely. The more accurately the report is filled out, the greater the likelihood of having a successful claim.

Most of the report is self-explanatory: putting in your name, address, seniority date, and similar background information is quite simple. Two areas of the form are, however, not as simple but are critical. The first is the explanation of the accident. On the sample personal injury report this section is headed "Describe Fully How Incident Occurred". Here you must explain what took place. If you slipped and fell on grease and oil on an engine step, that is what you should write. If your back was wrenched on a switch that did not throw smoothly, you should write that.

The second item on the sample personal injury report that requires special attention is, on the BN form, entitled "If Any Defects Involved, Identify And Describe". What constitutes a "defect" has often been the source of confusion among railroaders because they have so long been provided with inadequate tools and poorly maintained equipment, facilities, and ground conditions. The word "defect" must be read as broadly as possible. It may be helpful to look at the personal injury report as an "unsafe place to work report" because that is what the railroad should be interested in identifying and is really what you need to establish when you complete the form. The key is to remember that you are not simply reporting the INJURY, but also THE UNSAFE CONDITIONS THAT CAUSED THE ACCIDENT. You should consider ANYTHING about the work environment that contributed to the accident as a defect. For example, loose ballast, bent stirrups, and trash strewn in the workplace are all defects and should be noted if they played ANY part in causing an accident. If you feel the working conditions played a role in your injury, you can state the defect as being "unsafe working conditions" and/or "unsafe equipment."

Railroads usually claim that accidents are the fault of the person injured. Experience has shown that is rarely the case. Rather, it is usually the failure of the railroads to provide adequate forces to keep work areas free of old brake shoes, tie plates, and other debris resulting in falls. Or it may be the failure of the railroad to provide adequate maintenance of switches, couplers, and hand brakes that causes back and shoulder injuries. Unfortunately, many railroaders simply get used to working with equipment that is not kept up to proper standards and mistakenly assume that if, for example, switches throw a little hard or drawbars are difficult to align, resulting injuries are not due to defective equipment and so do not report it. To protect your rights, you must be sure to report absolutely ANYTHING that contributes in any way to an accident. Think carefully and if at all possible try to talk to your union representative or legal counsel before you fill out the personal injury report.

It is also important to note on the form any part of your body that has been injured. No matter how minor it might seem, EVERY PART OF YOU THAT HURTS TO EVEN THE SLIGHTEST DEGREE SHOULD BE LISTED.

You should also be aware that it you are injured, you are only required to complete an accident report. The railroad cannot force you to give a written or tape recorded statement to a claim agent. As an injured employee, you should NEVER GIVE A STATEMENT UNLESS YOU FIRST TALK TO YOUR UNION REPRESENTATIVE OR ATTORNEY.

Finally, ALWAYS keep a photo copy of the personal injury report for your own files. Do not trust a claim agent or supervisor to give you one at a later date.

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.