CAUTION: Railroads and Your Doctors

Purposeful intimidation by railroad management intended to keep employees from reporting personal injuries or from seeking proper medical treatment has, unfortunately, become almost routine on many railroads. The unions and FELA lawyers will continue to fight this type of harassment and intimidation, but workers also need to know that there is another tactic that railroads are using to deprive employees of their legitimate claims for compensation. However, most employees are completely unaware of these tactics, making them in many ways even more harmful.

This tactic revolves around railroad’s attempts to improperly invade the physician-patient privilege. While this physician-patient privilege is usually “waived” to a significant extent when a person brings an injury claim against their railroad employer, significant restrictions still exist and strict legal requirements must be met by railroads in order to obtain medical information from treating physicians. While a railroad will usually have the right to obtain medical records from doctors that have treated an employee for their on-the-job injury, the concern is not with the railroad’s right to obtain these medical records, but their improper attempts to interfere with and manipulate the employee’s medical care and treatment by direct contact with your doctors or other providers.

The railroads have been able to get away with this tactic because most doctors and other healthcare providers in the United States have no idea what the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) is or what rights it gives railroad employees, nor do they know of the vast differences between the FELA and state workers compensation laws. Most workers’ compensation laws give an active role to the employer concerning medical treatment following an on-the-job injury. The FELA (in which Congress gave railroad employees vast protection for on the job injuries) gives no such rights to railroads.

The concern, of course, of a railroad interfering with medical treatment is that the railroad will not be fair and objective in giving the doctor the physical requirements of the job and other information the doctor must have in making medical decisions on their patient’s behalf. Instead, a railroad may give biased and inaccurate information in an attempt to evade paying compensation for these injuries. It is rare to find doctors or other healthcare providers who are familiar with and truly understand the rigorous physical requirements of railroad work, the limitation of railroad employees to work in less strenuous jobs because of the nature of railroad seniority systems, and the all too common practice of railroads of trying to force persons back to work before they are truly ready.

How does this practice occur? A medical manager might call the doctor’s office and claim that “in order to process the bills,” they may need to not only have the medical records but talk to the doctor or nurse as well. The doctor or nurse, or another provider such as a therapist, not knowing any better, and not viewing this request as unusual based on their workers’ compensation practice, goes ahead with these conversations, never knowing that the railroad’s interest is not in the employee’s health and welfare, but only in protecting its own pocketbook.

It is also not uncommon for railroad “medical managers,” nurses, claim agents or others to suggest to doctors or others that the railroad will “take care of you,” or that there will be “light duty” available to the employee, when in fact the railroad has no obligation to provide this light duty and in many cases, light duty may not even be in the employee’s interest.

What can you do to protect yourself? First, you must always remember that most doctors and medical providers simply do not know the difference between the FELA and state workers’ compensation laws, and do not know that the railroad has no right to interfere in your medical treatment, or even to talk to your doctors without your consent. It is your job to make sure your doctors and other medical providers know these differences.

Next, make sure that you are educated on the differences between the FELA and workers compensation, because it will be difficult for you to explain this to your doctor without first knowing and understanding these differences yourself.

We have prepared a sample letter that you may give to your doctor explaining the differences between the FELA and worker’s compensation.

By ensuring that your doctor or healthcare provider is aware of these important differences, you will be in a far better position to protect your own interests. Ultimately, you and your doctor can work together towards your goal of getting the best medical treatment available and to have a doctor who will be fair and objective in evaluating your injuries.

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.