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The major (“Class I”) railroads in the United States, of which there are fewer than ten, and the multitude of regional (“Class II”) and short line (“Class III”) railroads consume types of legal services that might be needed by any business enterprise, e.g. real estate, environmental, government relations, or property law. Depending on facts and circumstances, they also can be subject to administrative worker compensation systems such as state worker’s compensation programs, the federal Black Lung Benefits Act, or the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

However, particular to railroads, therefore properly thought of as “Railroad Law,” is litigation in two areas of law: highway/railroad grade crossing litigation and occupational injury litigation under the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §51, et seq.

Intersections between railroad traffic and highway traffic exist all over the country and are frequently the scene of collisions that result in serious personal injury and property damage, and commensurate litigation. Various provisions of state and federal law along with principles of physics, acoustics, and semiotics affect grade crossing litigation that make it an area of specialization.

A railroad whose business activity affects interstate commerce can be sued under the FELA by its employees who suffer injury from work that is performed in furtherance of interstate commerce. Effectively, this includes most railroads and all of their employees. Claims under the FELA are brought in lieu of claims under state workers’ compensation systems. The types of injuries for which railroads are sued under the FELA include “traumatic” injuries that occur from one or a few incidents and occupational diseases that are claimed to result from a long series of exposures to the disease-causing activity or substance. The FELA has been in effect for more than 100 years, and a specialized body of law has grown up around litigation under the Act.

Luke Lafferre

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