The Supreme Court of Georgia has held that a railroad may be liable under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) to injured crew members for failure to provide safety training regarding grade crossing collisions. Norfolk Southern Railway Co.v. Zeagler, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Ga., Sept. 23, 2013). CCL Senior Counsel Jeffrey White argued in an amicus curiae brief filed on behalf of the American Association for Justice that the FELA action was neither preempted nor precluded by Federal Railroad Safety Act regulations.

Freight conductor Zeagler was riding in the locomotive cab when a logging truck pulled onto the tracks at a grade crossing. Although the engineer pulled the emergency brake, it was clear the train could not stop in time. As Zeagler was scrambling to exit the locomotive, he fell and injured his back. He brought suit under the FELA, alleging that the railroad negligently failed to instruct workers to brace in place when a collision is imminent, rather than try to escape from the locomotive. The trial judge granted Norfolk Southern’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that that it had no duty under federal law to provide such training. The court of appeals reversed.

The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s determination that injury to trainmen is clearly foreseeable and that the railroad owed a duty “to provide Zeagler with whatever training is reasonably appropriate to protect him from injury in such accidents.” The court rejected the railroad’s contention that Federal Railroad Safety Act regulations, which do not specifically require such collision training, preempt Zeagler’s FELA cause of action. The court made clear at the outset that preemption doctrine, based on the constitutional supremacy of federal law over state law, does not apply to a potential conflict between federal laws. Nor do the FSRA regulations preclude the FELA claim. The court did not reach the narrow scope of preclusion advocated by the AAJ brief. In this case, where FSRA regulations do not prescribe any particular safety instructions, there was nothing that could preclude plaintiff’s FELA lawsuit under even a relaxed standard. The court also rejected Norfolk Southern’s argument that precluding the cause of action would serve the goal of national uniformity for railroad requirements. Instead, the court held that “any ‘national uniformity’ in this area will occur through the recognition of a standard of care in cases brought under FELA.”