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June 21, 2019

The traditional common-law elements of negligence are "substantially relaxed" in cases where an employee of an interstate railroad seeks compensation for on-the-job injuries resulting from the railroad's alleged negligence

The Plaintiff in this action was working as an assistant conductor on MTA's Metro-North's New Haven Line [MTA] when she was physically attacked by a passenger while seeking to collect the passenger's fare. MTA Metro-North Railroad submitted a motion for summary judgment dismissing Plaintiff's sole claim under the Federal Employee Liability Act [FELA]. Supreme Court denied MTA's motion and the Railroad appealed. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the Supreme Court's ruling.

The Appellate Division explained:

1.  FELA, 45 USC §51 et seq., provides that operators of interstate railroads shall be liable to their employees for on-the-job injuries resulting from the railroad's negligence.

2. In an action brought pursuant to FELA, "... the traditional common-law elements of negligence: duty, breach, damages, causation and foreseeability" are "substantially relaxed" and "negligence is liberally construed to effectuate the statute's broadly remedial intended function."

3. FELA claim "must be determined by the jury if there is any question as to whether employer negligence played a part in the employee suffering an on-the-job injury, however small," but, citing Pidgeon v Metro-North Commuter R.R., 248 AD2d 318, the court noted that "A case is deemed unworthy of submission to a jury only if evidence of negligence is so thin that on a judicial appraisal, the only conclusion that could be drawn is that negligence by the employer could have played no part in an employee's injury."

4. To establish the element of foreseeability, a plaintiff must show that the employer had either actual or constructive notice of the defective condition but notice generally presents an issue of fact for the jury to determine.

Thus, under the FLEA "relaxed standard" applicable here, the court found that Plaintiff had submitted sufficient evidence to raise an issue of fact concerning MTA's actual or constructive notice of a risk of assault to conductors on the New Haven Line sufficient to be submitted to a jury based on Plaintiff testimony that:

[a] she was previously assaulted by a passenger;

[b] there was an ongoing problem of physical intimidation by large groups of adolescents refusing to pay their fares;

[c] Plaintiff had testified that she has called the MTA's rail traffic controllers for police assistance at least 250 times to deal with abusive passengers;

[d] another conductor was punched in the face and knocked out; and

[e] a passenger attempted to stab and rob another conductor on the Harlem Line.

Considering this testimony, the Appellate Division held that Supreme Court's summary judgment rejecting MTA's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint was properly denied.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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