When Is a Railroad Worker “Employed” Under FELA?

The Nebraska Supreme Court will soon decide a case styled: Holsapple vs. Union Pacific. The issue in this FELA case is whether the employee [Holsapple] was "on the job" at the time of injury since he injured himself in the morning walking to the actual location where he was to commence work. This case is of extreme importance to FELA and especially maintenance of way workers that are constantly moving from area to area while working in gangs.

Who is covered under FELA?

The Federal Employer’s Liability Act 45 U.S.C. §51 et seq., or “FELA”, was enacted by Congress in 1908 in response to dangerous conditions railroad workers faced during the expansion of the United States.

As such, FELA covers railroad workers that are injured while employed by the railroad (common carrier). That is, if a railroad worker is injured while on the job, then he may have an action under FELA. However, if a railroad worker is vacationing in the mountains and breaks his leg while skiing FELA will not cover him. Also, if a motorist (not employed by the railroad) is injured at a faulty railroad intersection they would not be covered under FELA because they are not employed by the railroad.

What must an employee show to recover under FELA?

To recover damages under FELA, the injured worker must establish the (4) following points.

(1) They must establish that the railroad is a common carrier by railroad engaged in interstate commerce.
(2) They must prove that they were, employed by the railroad and assigned to perform duties which furthered the railroad’s interest
(3) They must demonstrate that harm was sustained while they were employed by the common carrier.
(4) They must prove that the harm resulted from the railroad’s negligence.

Simply put, FELA makes a railroad liable for negligently causing injury or death to any person “while he is employed” by the railroad, and the railroad’s negligence played a part (no matter how small) in causing the injury.

What damages may be recovered under FELA?

If an injured railroad worker successfully establishes the (4) points above then he or she may be entitled to, future and past wage losses, past and future medical expenses associated with the injury, pain, suffering, and mental anguish in the past.

When is a worker “employed” by the railroad?

As discussed above a railroad worker must be “employed” by the railroad at the time the injury occurs. FELA does not use the terms “employee” and “employed” in any special sense. As a result, whether an individual is “employed” at the time of the accident are decided on its particular facts and no one feature of the relationship between the employee and railroad is determinative. To illustrate this point, below is a case that will soon be decided by the Nebraska Supreme Court.


A Union Pacific (UP) conductor, Glenn Holsapple (“Holsapple”) was injured while walking to work is seeking relief under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA). Holsapple was injured by stepping in a pothole while walking into UP’s yard.

The Douglas County District Court, in Nebraska, granted UP’s motion for summary judgment after UP’s counsel successfully argued that it should not be held responsible for the injury because it happened before his shift started and on a driveway owned by the city. The Court found he was not “employed” by UP when he was injured.

Was Holsapple “employed” by UP at the time he was injured?

As previously discussed, Holsapple must show that he was “employed” at the time of his injury. Both sides, obviously, disagree whether Holsapple was injured during the course of employment and have argued the following.

UP’s counsel suggests that Holsapple was not “employed” by UP at the time he was injured. They claim that “employment” begins once Holsapple reports to the yard house and not while he is walking on his way to work from an adjacent parking lot. Furthermore, UP claims that because the parking property is owned by the city, they do not have a duty to maintain it. However, Holsapple’s attorneys argue that he was “employed” at the time of the injury because the parking lot was used regularly for that same purpose and it occurred merely minutes before the beginning of his shift. Also, Holsapple introduced evidence, that UP fixed the pothole, showing that UP had actually maintained and exercised control of the parking lot.

A similar Third Circuit case to this one in which the Court found in favor of the employee is Carter v. Union R. Co., 438 F.2d 208 (3rd Cir. 1971). In Carter, an employee was injured while walking across parking lot, which the railroad had no control or ownership, located next to the house the employee was required to check in to “report to work”. The railroad also had an agreement with the property owner allowing their employees to park and access a path leading into the railroad’s yard. The Court held the railroad responsible for the employee’s injury and found that the employee was clearly within the course of his employment, as required by FELA, because he was injured in a parking lot, located next to the railroad’s property, while en route to report to work.

It appears that Holsapple has introduced sufficient evidence to create a reasonable belief that he was “employed” when he stepped into the pothole and injured his knee. Therefore, the Nebraska Supreme Court should reverse the granting of summary judgment because the fact that he was injured while walking to work merely minutes before his shift creates a genuine issue of material fact whether he was “employed” by UP at the time of injury. As shown by the Carter case, it is likely that the facts presented by Holsapple support a finding he was “employed” by UP.

This case illustrates the point that whether a railroad worker is “employed” at the time of his injury is very dependent on the facts presented in each case. Some cases, such as a railroad worker injured in a locomotive, while performing duties within the rail yard, or along the track owned by the railroad, present a simple analysis of whether they were “employed” by the railroad at the time of injury. However, other cases, such as Holsapple’s, present tougher issues and require further examination into the facts.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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