Hi, I’m EyenaN, I’m one of the paralegals here at Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers. Today, I’m here with Attorney John Cooper to discuss what railroaders should do after getting injured at work. Before we dive, in it’s worth sharing that John has an extensive record helping injured railroad employees. He is union designated council, he is an expert in FELA cases, and he has won millions of dollars for injured railroad workers.
What are the immediate steps a railroad employee should take after getting injured at work?
Yeah, so if you get injured at work on the railroad you definitely want to report your injury before you leave the premises that day. If you’re going to the emergency room, then you want to demand to get your emergency room treatment before they make you fill out a bunch of forms- so it’s always a little bit tricky to get hurt and if you don’t tell them because you’re not sure how hurt you are and you just want to kind of see how it goes, you could be taking a risk that the railroad will end up saying, “Oh, well, you never even told us about it,” or, “You told us about it a week later, so how do we know you didn’t get hurt somewhere else?” or all that sort of thing. So if there’s any chance that this is going to be a significant injury, you want to make sure that you immediately stop what you’re doing, tell your co-workers and report it to someone in management so that they can’t say that you didn’t report it properly. That’s really the main thing, and then, of course, getting the treatment you need is the other significant factor. Don’t let them tell you, “Oh, just slough it off,” or you know, “Don’t worry about it.” If you need to get medical treatment, go get your medical treatment. They can’t stop you, and in fact if they do try to stop you from getting the medical care you need, they can get in trouble for that as well.
What should an injured railroad employee tell the doctor when they present for treatment?
The main thing is to be honest with your doctors about how it happened uh that it was a workplace injury, obviously, and that um if you can describe, you know, the mechanism of the injury so that it’s as clear as it can be on the record uh because the doctors are trying to write down what it is that you say to them and so you want to be as good at communicating it as you can. So another problem that sometimes occurs in cases is that somehow the story as written down by the health care provider ends up not matching what actually happened, so you want to do the best you can to explain it to them. Now one thing about railroad work is there’s a lot of special terms of art, you know, wheel sets or you know hump yard or whatever it might be that that’s not going to mean anything to the health care provider, and it may even cause them to write something down wrong, so just be as clear with them as you know simple language about how you got hurt. So that’s really the key.
Should the railroad claims department have access to our clients medical bills or records?
Absolutely not. So when you get hurt on the railroad, you have a duty to report it to your supervisor or some management person, but you have no obligation to cooperate with the claims department and the claims agent. So as soon as the claims agent knows that you got a case, and they’re going to know because the management is going to report it to them, they’re going to probably start to call you and ask you for recorded statements and other things- you should absolutely not give them a recorded statement. You do not have to be recorded, and in fact, as to the claims agent, you don’t have to talk to them at all. The simplest thing is to say, “Look, I’m hurt right now, I want to focus on getting well, I probably am going to hire a lawyer, so if you could just, you know, leave me alone, I’ll get back to you when I want to if I want to. Once they know that you have an attorney, so a client’s hired us for a FELA case, we put the railroad on notice at that point they are not allowed to contact you directly anymore, so it’s one more reason to hire an attorney quickly.
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The problem is if you give them the right to invade your privacy by getting all your medical records then they’re going to go in and they’ll even try to talk to your doctors with you or without you or the railroad will sometimes assign a nurse case manager and that person will want to go and tell the doctor, “Don’t give them this, and do give them that,” or “Let’s wait on this,” and they have absolutely no right to do that. In fact, if you’re in the emergency room and some railroad representative is asking to be in the room with you, you say to them, “No sir, you’re not allowed to do that. I want to go in and talk to my doctor privately.” So a lot of times they’ll carry you into the emergency room in hopes that they can sort of inject themselves in it, and obviously what the railroad wants to do is minimize your case, say you’re not that hurt, prevent you from getting too much medical treatment and above all the railroad does not want you to go to a lawyer those claims agents lose and they get in a little bit of trouble if they allow you to get in the hands of an attorney, because they know if you’ve got a lawyer, you’re going to find out what your rights are, you’re going to get more money, and you’ve got somebody out somebody looking out for you and not just looking out for the railroad.
What is the most common mistake that railroad employees make after getting injured at work?
Yeah, I think that one of the things that tends to happen is that they get intimidated by the union officials, I’m sorry, by the company officials who come in, you know, you’ve reported the injury, you’ve gotten the medical treatment, they’re probably going to ask you to come back to the yard and do the report then and there, and by the way, if you’re not feeling up to it at that point because you’re on medication or whatever, you have also the right to go home and say, “I’ll come back tomorrow and do that incident report,” but the biggest issue is knowing how to fill out the incident report. So one thing that we do is when we go around the union meetings and so on is distribute a copy of the Norfolk Southern, CSX incident report so that the union guys and the workers can read that report and know what they’re going to be forced to answer before it happens. Because once you’re hurt and all this terrible stuff is going on, it’s the middle of the night, and you’ve got you know now they’ve called in all the higher ups and everybody’s breathing down your neck to say it the way they want you to say it, it’s harder to stick to your guns.
But the main thing is you need to know what it was that caused you to get hurt and you need to put it on the incident report, so when it says did you have a safe place to work if you got hurt because of the railroad’s fault or a co-worker’s fault the answer is no, i didn’t have a reasonably safe place to work and then it’ll say something like was all the equipment in good condition? Well, if there was defective equipment and something wrong you need to check the box that says yes and fill in a defective handbrake or whatever it was, whatever the equipment was that led to your injury so that really is the first thing, it comes back to that incident report because that happens, you know, pretty close after the accident and they are looking for you to basically say, “Oh no, it’s you know my own fault,” or “Nobody did anything wrong.” If somebody did something wrong or it wasn’t a safe place to work, you got to be firm and put that on the report.
Railroad injury cases are handled under FELA. What is FELA, and how is that different from workers comp?
So railroad workers working for the major railroads, any railroad that’s involved in interstate commerce, is covered under the Federal Employers Liability Act that’s what FELA stands for- Federal Employers Liability Act, FELA for short, and the FELA is a special rule for railroad workers who get on hurt on the job, and unlike you or me, a railroad worker gets hurt on the job, they can sue the railroad whereas if you get hurt as a paralegal here at the law firm- sorry to tell you- all you get is workers comp and you can’t sue me or sue the the law firm, and so this is a special right and the reason these rights exist and have been there for over 100 years is because of the idea that railroad work was especially dangerous and way back when you know people were losing their legs and losing their lives every day.
Railroad equipment is heavy and it’s moving and there’s all kinds of ways that you can get, you know, drastically injured so it’s a statute to protect railroad workers and allows them to have a lawsuit directly against their company. The other thing that’s different between FELA and workers comp is the kinds of damages you can get. FELA is a much bigger remedy, a much broader remedy and it allows for pain and suffering and a lot of other things that workers comp doesn’t. Workers comp typically is just your medical bills and your lost wages and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes there can be another category of a little bit for permanent loss, but all of it is a very, very limited remedy and luckily for railroad workers, you aren’t stuck with that limited remedy, you have a much better right under FELA.
What compensation can an injured railroad worker receive in a FELA case?
Right, so it’s a lot like regular tort claims like in an automobile accident. Now, every state has slightly different law about even car wrecks and truck wrecks but basically you get your medical bills and your lost wages plus pain and suffering, inconvenience, humiliation if you have a deformity or some kind of scarring, it covers that, it covers future lost wages, it covers future medical bills if we can prove them, and it also is something for essentially your loss of quality of life and that’s really the biggest thing because you know the medical bills that just gets you back to being having those debts paid off but it doesn’t do anything for the lingering suffering that you might have and all you went through. So that’s why FELA is a good strong remedy.
How is negligence proven in a railroad worker incident case, and how can an attorney like us help?
So one thing that is an important concept for you, the railroad worker, or family member to know is you actually have to show that the railroad did something wrong that led to your accident and injury in order for there to be a claim. So normally that is negligence which simply means carelessness or the failure to do good, safe railroading practice and it could be a violation of company rules, it could be a violation of the FRA- Federal Railroad Administration rules, it could be any number of things. But the law basically says that they have a duty, the railroad has a duty, to provide a reasonably safe place to work and so we have to show that it was not a reasonably safe place to work. It isn’t enough just that you got hurt, you’ve got to show something more than that. Now, there’s some ways in which to prove a little bit more automatic negligence on their special federal statutes particularly the Safety Appliance Act which is a law that talks about cars and things like handbrakes and the grab irons and the stairs, the ladder systems, and the brake systems. Those on a car that’s in use on the railroad have got to be in good working order so there if the grab iron is bent and rusted in a way that caused you to fall off a car that can be a much more automatic type of liability, but it’s still a kind of liability based upon the railroad doing something wrong.
The other thing is if your co-worker does something wrong the railroad’s responsible for that, so unfortunately, sometimes it is another person on your crew or on your uh job with you who messes up and causes you to get hurt. In that case, the railroad’s still responsible because they’re responsible for all their workers but to the second question about how can we help, you know, because we’ve seen so many different accidents and injury situations on the railroad we have the ability to find the negligence sometimes it may not be as obvious to the railroad worker or they may think of one thing but not realize that there’s other ways to say that the railroad did wrong and to accomplish this we have railroad investigators like Robert Pless from Tennessee and Carl Keen down in Florida and they know the railroad work and can help us to interview witnesses, to take pictures, to look at the rule books and find the violations, to be able to say that the railroad definitely was careless and didn’t provide a safe place to work.
Wrongful death, is that covered by FELA?
It is. FELA has a provision to cover the spouse and children for railroaders who get hurt or killed on the job. It is different than state of Virginia wrongful death and is different than certain other states but the elements there are primarily based upon the economic losses and so if you are a widow and your husband is a young railroad man who’s got lots of years of work life left in him, the first element of damages is looking at all the income he would have lost if he had been alive, he would have provided to the family. So it’s wife and children primarily. There could be other situations that go beyond that and that’s one of the things that’s a little bit different than state towards who the claimants are but it is also based upon conscious pain and suffering of the railroad worker, so if the railroad worker suffered and was sitting there, and again, it’s pretty gruesome so we don’t necessarily need to talk about examples but doesn’t die immediately, then the family is entitled to something for what that worker had to go through in their last moments on this earth, and you know what that would have been like.
And again, some states have that, Virginia happens to not have that conscious pain and suffering for the decedent, but again, railroad definitely covers wrongful death , FELA law definitely covers wrongful death and it’s just a different set of remedies. So one of the things we say to folks is make sure that your spouse your wife knows who to call in the event something happens to you at work, because a lot of times that call to us is unfortunately from a loved one, typically a wife, who whose husband got killed and she doesn’t know where to turn, so you want to make sure that she knows where you, the railroad worker, want her to turn if something bad like that happens.
If a railroad employee has been injured and is out of work without an income, what can they do?
Yeah, so and obviously this is a terrible situation to be in pain and out of work and having to go to doctors appointments and worried about how you’re going to put food on the table and keep the roof over your head, so it’s certainly something that we work through with every client to make sure that they’re getting all the benefits that they are entitled to and to make sure that they are in the best financial position while the case is pending. So some of the things are making sure that the railroad retirement board benefits, both short-term and possibly long-term benefits, are available to them and so we have a lot of experience with that and can help the worker to make sure that they apply to the railroad retirement board and get those benefits coming into the family as soon as possible. It’s not as good as your salary, it’s less than your regular salary, but at least it’s something to keep the household afloat. There’s also typically some kind of supplemental short-term disability benefits that are bought through private companies sometimes it’s through the union as part of the union benefits and then sometimes it’s just a private package that they have bought that the worker has been smart enough to buy to provide additional income beyond the RRB.
So one of the things we do again early in the case is to talk about financial stability for the family to make sure that they can make it through the time that we get the case resolved. One comment about that is it’s not instantaneous in terms of getting a case resolved, even if the case of FELA case gets settled, it’s typically going to be months at a minimum after the injury and the reason for that is we don’t want to settle the case today and find out tomorrow you need a surgery because once you sign that release, as you very well know from seeing all those releases, it basically says you can never come back to the railroad ever again about that incident. So before you sign a paper that says I have no more rights and no more claim, we need to make sure you’re either 100% fine, 100% well or essentially as good as you’re going to get, maximum medical improvement, and the doctors have said this is pretty much what you have is what you’re going to have to live with and that way when we’re presenting the claim we know and the railroad knows what the future holds for this family and for this worker. Right.
If someone has experienced anything we’ve talked about today, why should they call us?
Yeah, well I think the main reason to call us is that we are experienced FELA lawyers and what that means is we’ve represented many, many railroad workers and their families for decades and we know what we’re talking about in the field and we can make sure that the case comes out the right way for you because we’ve been there. You might think, oh I could just call my regular lawyer who did my divorce or who did my will, but not only are those guys not personal injury lawyers necessarily but even if they do regular automobile accidents or some of the things that many lawyers do in the personal injury arena, if they don’t know the specifics of FELA, then you need to find somebody who does. So that’s the number one reason is the experience and knowledge level.
The second thing is we try to really be approachable anytime you need us even if it’s a small issue we’re going to try to take the phone with you immediately, get back to you promptly, and you know that’s the number one complaint people have about lawyers is that they don’t get good communication or maybe the lawyers there at the beginning and then you never hear from them again. You won’t get that with us. If i can’t take your call immediately, Stephanie knows how to find me and she will call me. I also am happy to give you my cell phone number and we’re ready to take that call 24/7 because we know it doesn’t all happen on first shift. It could be in the middle of the night and we’re ready to talk to you and give you the guidance you need with no obligation. So the other thing is if they call us, as you know Stephanie, they don’t have to pay us anything for our time, we’re not going to ask for any money up front from you at all. We only get paid at the back end if there’s a settlement or verdict, we get our pay at the end of that.
We also charge lower rates in FELA because I’m union designated council for certain unions and basically as a benefit to railroad workers we charge essentially a discounted fee and so that’s yet another reason. But those are some of the main things. You need to have information on your side, there’s no obligation, there’s no risk, it’s totally confidential. If you’re calling us about a case, we can’t breathe a word of that, even if you don’t hire us. So you know it’s like having a lawyer on retainer is what I say. Sall us if you’re a field worker who’s been hurt and we’re going to try to help you and point you in the right direction. So that’s really the key. Alright, alright. Well hopefully this has been informative. These are things that I say every day but it always amazes me how many folks don’t really know, particularly some of the younger workers who maybe aren’t as active with the union as others, they don’t necessarily know all of how this works and, you know, blessedly, you could make it through your whole career and not get hurt, but that’s a very rare person. It’s going to probably happen. So one of the things you can do is to get our book.
It’s a fairly short, you know, essentially a pamphlet talking about some of the issues we’ve talked about today. And we try to make ourselves available both on the internet like this video is out there on YouTube for information for folks. But you know anytime you need us, you can Google us at Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers out of Norfolk, Virginia and we’re ready to come to you. One of the things that’s worth mentioning is that the FELA practice is essentially a national practice, so even though I’m licensed in Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and my law partner is licensed in Florida and other places, we can go to any state and handle this case because the FELA law is a national law that applies for railroad workers no matter what state you’re in. And so that’s one thing to know, and so it basically is no problem if you’re in Georgia or you’re in Washington state, you know, we get calls from all across the country asking for help against not only CSX, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern but also against the western railroads like BNSF. So if you’ve been injured while working for the railroad, give us a call 757-333-3333.
Thanks for reading