October 21, 2014

SEPTA fails in backdoor attempt to escape FELA

It is no secret that railroads have tried with all their king’s horsemen and all their king’s men (and women) to send to the dust bin of history the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), considered the best friend of rail workers in forcing carriers to improve workplace safety.

That 1908 law allows railroaders to recover civil compensatory and punitive damages when railroads fail to maintain a safe workplace, resulting in injury, dismemberment or death.

The latest assault on FELA was a backdoor escape attempt by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which sought to declare itself an instrumentality of the State of Pennsylvania, and thus immune, under the U.S. Constitution’s 11th Amendment’s sovereign immunity clause, from such lawsuits.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court termed the argument bogus, slamming that back door on SEPTA before it could wiggle out. Citing a history of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Pennsylvania’s highest court ruled that SEPTA, as every other railroad operating in interstate commerce, is and remains subject to FELA.

SEPTA had sought to force its injured workers to file for workers’ compensation under the state’s federal/state workers’ compensation law, rather than bring a lawsuit under provisions of FELA.

Ruled the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:

‘We discern no threat to the dignity of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania whenever a private individual commences a FELA suit in the courts of this Commonwealth, nor do we find the treasury of the Commonwealth to be threatened by a FELA suit in our courts. Accordingly, we conclude SEPTA is not an arm of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and thus not entitled to claim immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.”

In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined a railroad attempt to weaken FELA by tightening the standards of proof injured rail workers must demonstrate to win an award under FELA. Attempts by railroads to have Congress scuttle FELA have not progressed beyond a committee hearing stage.

The UTU, Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association and other rail labor organizations joined in bringing the SEPTA case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for final determination.

SEPTA commuter rail service was transferred from Conrail to SEPTA, which also provides commuter bus and transit services, in 1983.

To read the court’s decision, click here.