Railroad worker files FELA case against Union Pacific

Steve Gonzalez Apr. 17, 2007, 4:00pm

A railroad worker from Whitehouse filed a Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) suit in U.S. District Court April 10, alleging Union Pacific failed to provide him a safe place to work.

Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1908, FELA was designed to protect and compensate railroaders who sustain injuries while working. Unlike state workers' compensation law, FELA requires the injured worker to prove that the railroad was "legally negligent," at least in part, in causing an injury.

Cecil Lee Petree claims he sustained permanent injuries to his back on Dec. 7, 2006, while working as a signal maintenance assistant.

He claims because of the nature of his injuries, he suffered great physical and mental pain and anguish, and alleges he could suffer those symptoms the remainder of his life.

Under FELA, injured workers can seek compensation for wage losses past and future, medical expenses and treatments, pain and suffering, and for partial or permanent disability. If an employee dies, survivors are entitled to recover damages which they have suffered because of the death.

After proving negligence, the injured worker is entitled to full compensation, which is usually many times greater than that provided by state workers' compensation benefits for non-railroaders which provide benefits on a no-fault basis

Petree also claims he has become liable for medical expenses he incurred and claims he has lost and will continue to suffer economic damages in lost wages.

He claims Union Pacific failed to provide him a reasonably safe place to work, failed to provide safe conditions to work, failed to provide adequate assistance and failed to provide safe tools and equipment.

Represented by David Wilson and Matt Matheny of Beaumont, Petree is seeking damages in excess of $75,000, plus costs.

The case has been assigned to District Judge T. John Ward.

FELA allows a claim to be brought in federal or state court, whichever better suits the employee's convenience or purpose. The case may be filed in any city into which a railroad passes, or even where the railroad has no tracks but has a business office.

According to a published report by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), railroad management has argued that the FELA process imposes higher costs on the rail industry than those imposed by the workers' compensation system on its competitors -- primarily the trucking industry. That places railroads at a competitive disadvantage, the rail industry argues.

Rail union leaders contend that FELA is a necessary system to provide fair compensation and to offer incentives to industry to offer a safe working environment.

At the request of Congress, a TRB committee that produced the report compared FELA with other workers' compensation systems. The committee concluded that while FELA provides higher benefits it can result in delays in payments, involve higher transaction costs, and result in greater costs to railroads.

The committee recommended that industry and labor make constructive changes in the FELA process that could help reduce costs. One means of doing so would be to rely on alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms to reduce the extent of litigation.

Due to the high degree of unionization in the railroad industry, any reductions in injury compensation benefits are likely to be resisted strongly by labor, the TRB concluded.

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