Summary Judgment Obtained on Common Carrier Issue

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Reprinted with permission from The National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel’s “The Main Line”

Birmingham attorneys Turner Williams​ and Al Teel​ obtained summary judgment in their favor on behalf of R.J. Corman Railroad Switching Company, LLC in McGinnis v. Alabama River Cellulose, LLC, et al., Case No. 51-CV-2019-900051.00, in the Circuit Court of Monroe County, Alabama. This win was an important victory for railroad “switching” entities like RJC who are often sued under the FELA.

Background: Plaintiff Artis McGinnis worked as a switchman for RJC, who performed switching services at a paper mill in Monroe County, Alabama. McGinnis had been a manager for previous switching companies at the mill. RJC simply switched cars as directed by the mill for pickup and drop-off by an actual common carrier by railroad, the Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway, LLC. After slipping from a set of steps attached to a locomotive, he brought claims against RJC under the FELA, Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act, and common law negligence theories. Plaintiff also brought a general premises liability claim against the owner of the paper mill.

Defense counsel brought a motion for summary judgment on behalf of RJC, arguing that Mr. McGinnis’s employer was not a “common carrier by rail” subject to the FELA. RJC also argued that Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation Act provided the exclusive remedy for Plaintiff’s on-the-job incident. In the alternative, RJC argued, even if the FELA did apply, Mr. McGinnis’s own contributory negligence would bar his claim.

Plaintiff argued, among other things, that a Switching Services Agreement between RJC and the paper mill made RJC an “agent” of a common carrier. Plaintiff also argued in his brief that the switching services provided a “necessary link” to a common carrier that actually picked up and delivered cars to and from the mill. Defense counsel replied that Plaintiff’s proposed expansion of FELA liability to entities like RJC would have a far-reaching, industry-wide impact and put in jeopardy the exclusive nature of the remedy under Alabama’s workers’ compensation statute.

The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment and found that Plaintiff’s sole remedy lies in workers’ comp as opposed to the FELA. Click here to read the briefs.

Takeaway: As several railroad clients continue to offer diversified services through separate entities, this win reinforces the importance of protecting against the plaintiff’s bar’s attempt to classify non-railroading entities as being subject to FELA liability.

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