A federal appeals court has overturned a $76,000 award to a Frostburg man who was hurt while working in a Cumberland rail yard, because the train he was working on was not technically “in use.”
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday because Jeffrey D. Phillips “was injured at the end of the switching process, rather than at the beginning of the departure process,” his injuries were not subject to the Federal Safety Appliance Act.
“Obviously, we disagree,” said E. Stanley Murphy, Phillips’ attorney. “We’re having trouble understanding the common sense of the decision.”
Phillips was a yard crew foreman for CSX Transportation Inc. on July, 20, 1994, when he was setting brakes on rail cars in preparation for a final safety inspection before the train left the yard. As he pulled himself up on to a car, the handrail gave way and he fell, suffering a herniated lumbar disk.
In August 1996, the federal district court in Baltimore found CSX in violation of the FSAA and a jury awarded Phillips $444,650 in damages. The court later reduced that amount to $76,533.54.
CSX appealed the decision and Phillips appealed the reduction in damages.
The appellate court reversed the decision against CSX, saying the FSAA only applies when a train is “in use.” It cited an earlier case, Deans vs. CSX Transportation, in which it said a court must consider several factors when determining whether a train is in use, including the location of the train at the time of the accident and the injured party’s actions.
In Deans, the court said the injured worker was a member of the transportation crew, while Phillips worked on switching operations. Also, in Deans the train’s departure was “imminent,” but that was not the case when Phillips was injured, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled.
Stephen Caplis, an attorney with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston who represented CSX in both Deans’ and Phillips’ cases, said circumstances in the two cases were different enough to justify the differing outcomes.
“I think the railroad felt [whether the railcar was in use at the time of the accident] was a substantial one,” Caplis said.
Murphy said he is confident Phillips will appeal the latest ruling to the Supreme Court, because different circuits have adopted different interpretations of when a train is in use. While the 5th Circuit ruled in 1991 that a railcar was not in use until it is fully assembled and the crew has completed its inspection before departure, the 4th Circuit added several different factors to that determination in Deans.
“I think we’ll definitely appeal,” Murphy said. “There is a difference between the circuits in this case.”