It is common knowledge that workers’ compensation schemes bar, in most circumstances, negligence claims brought by an employee against his or her employer. Given that recovery in the workers’ compensation setting can be more limited than desired, litigants will often try to fit their negligence claims against an employer within the confines of those claims that are not barred under workers’ compensation laws. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently dealt with this practice in Dixon v. CSX Intermodal Terminals, Inc., a case that arose from the injury of an employee who fell while on the job.
The plaintiff in Dixon is an employee of the defendant, CSX Intermodal Terminals (“CSXIT”), which is a business providing motor carrier and transloading services. While attempting to unlock an interbox-connector, which is used to hitch containers in a railcar, the plaintiff fell. Following this accident, the plaintiff received $162,000 in workers’ compensation insurance benefits, the receipt of which bars claims for common law negligence against the employer under Georgia law. However, the statutory scheme does not bar claims brought under the Federal Employee Liability Act (“FELA”), and the plaintiff ultimately brought suit against CSXIT, alleging a negligence claim under this statute. The trial court ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, which argued that it is not covered by the provisions of the FELA. The employee appealed.
The FELA provides:
“Every common carrier by railroad while engag[ed] in [interstate commerce] shall be liable in damages to any person [who] suffer[s] injury while . . . employed by such carrier in such commerce, . . . for . . . injury . . . resulting in whole or in part from  negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of [the] carrier, . . . by reason of any defect or insufficiency, due to . . . negligence, in its cars . . . or other equipment.”
45 U.S.C. § 51. The FELA does not provide a definition for “common carrier by railroad,” but courts have interpreted the phrase to mean a business that “operate[s] a going railroad that carries for the public.” Smith v. Rail Link, Inc., 697 F.3d 1304, 1308 (10th Cir. 2012). CSXIT is a subsidiary of CSX, a publicly owned company. Among CSX’s other subsidiaries is CSXT, which operates a railroad. Although both are wholly owned by CSX, CSXT and CSXIT are distinct subsidiaries and independent corporations.
CSXIT, the plaintiff’s employer, argued that it was in the business of motor carriage and transloading services and that it did not operate a railroad carrying for the public. Therefore, its business fell beyond the scope of the FELA. The Court of Appeals agreed. The court acknowledged that the businesses are interrelated insofar as CSXT’s railroad moves the cars used in CSXIT’s transloading services. However, the Court of Appeals found that this interrelatedness of businesses does not extend liability to a wholly independent non-railroad subsidiary. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals needed to determine whether CSXIT’s transloading business independently fell within the scope of the FELA.
Even though CSXIT’s services are intimately related to the railroad business, the Supreme Court of the United States has indicated that relatedness to railroad services is insufficient. See Edwards v. Pac. Fruit Exp. Co., 390 U.S. 538, 541 (1968) (finding that “[b]y refusing to broaden the meaning of railroads, Congress declined to extend the coverage of the Act to activities . . . intimately associated with the business of common carrier by railroad”). Instead, the business must directly perform those acts characteristic of operating a railroad, meaning transporting passengers or cargo by rail or engaging in rail yard switching operations. The transloading services at issue here, the loading and unloading of railcars, do not involve these activities, even if an employee may unlatch the cars during the unloading process. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals determined that these activities fell beyond the scope of the FELA. See id. at 540-42 (holding that FELA coverage did not extend to employees of a company that serviced railroad cars even though the business’ services were “intimately associated” with the business of an associated railway company). Therefore, the employee could not maintain a negligence claim under the FELA.
Although certain efforts to elude the limitations posed by the workers’ compensation scheme may indeed be without merit, the law does not bar all claims against an employer. Indeed, there are many classes of claims, some of which are directly excluded by workers’ compensation law, that allow recovery for an employer’s negligence. Understanding the limitations posed by Georgia’s workers’ compensation scheme can be difficult, and those who have suffered an injury on the job should consider finding experienced counsel before filing a case. The Atlanta workplace injury lawyers at the Simon Law Firm have represented many clients who have been harmed on the job and are prepared to offer you guidance with a possible workplace injury claim. If you believe you may have a viable claim, feel free to contact us to discuss your options.