When a railroad worker is injured, he or she can often get compensation from the railroad company by filing a claim under a federal law called the Federal Employers Liability Act. This article focuses on the location of the lawsuit. In the sections that follow, we will explain who determines the location of the lawsuit, which courts have the ability to decide the case, and which courts might decline to decide the case.
(For more on these the unique laws that govern these cases, see our section on Railroad Worker Injury Claims).
Imagine a railroad worker in Topeka, Kansas becomes injured when a hoist collapses. The railroad operates in 38 states. The regional office that oversees the Topeka yard is in Omaha, Nebraska. The railroad’s national headquarters is in Chicago, Illinois, and it is incorporated under the laws of Delaware. The hoist was manufactured in Vietnam. Where does the lawsuit for the injuries to the worker take place?
The short answer is: “wherever the worker wants to sue.” The worker controls the lawsuit. Thus, the worker can control (within certain parameters) when and where the lawsuit takes place.
So, if the worker wants to be close to the lawsuit for his or her personal convenience, the worker could probably file the lawsuit in Kansas. But the worker would likely not be limited to Kansas. It may sometimes be beneficial for a worker to file the lawsuit in another state. He or she has that option because the worker typically controls where and when the lawsuit is filed.
The legal term “jurisdiction” refers to a court’s power to decide a case. Any court that has jurisdiction over a defendant has the power to decide a case brought by an injured worker against that defendant.
The rules of jurisdiction are complicated and they sometimes vary by state, but as a general matter, a court has jurisdiction over a railroad if the railroad conducts business in that state. So, for example, if a railroad owns track in a state, that state’s courts usually have jurisdiction over the defendant.
If a court does not have jurisdiction over a defendant, that court has no ability to decide a case against that defendant. So, if the worker in the example above sued the railroad in Florida, but the railroad owned no track in Florida and conducted no business there, the Florida court would not have the power to decide the case, so the court would reject the case and tell the worker to sue in some other court.
So, can a worker look at the laws of all of the states where a railroad does business, find the law most favorable to the worker, and file the case there? The answer is, “not really.” Courts have the ability to decline to decide cases even when they have jurisdiction.
The courts of different states have different procedures for how to determine whether to decline a case. Basically, the court will ask itself, “does it make any sense for this court to decide this case?” If the answer is, “yes,” the court will decide the case. In the relatively rare instance that the court says “no,” the court will decline to hear the case, and basically instruct the worker to file the case in a location that would make more sense.
So, going back to the earlier example, imagine that the worker from Kansas filed the lawsuit in Chicago. The railroad’s management, which made the decisions about safety at the Topeka yard where the worker was injured mainly work in Chicago. Also, both the worker’s lawyer and the law department for the railroad are located in Chicago. The Chicago court would probably accept the case because it makes sense to litigate the case in Chicago with so many of the witnesses and lawyers located there.
On the other hand, imagine the worker files the lawsuit in Tennessee. The railroad owns track in Tennessee and has a few yards there, but there are no management offices there, and the state has no other relationship to the lawsuit. Even though a Tennessee court might have jurisdiction, a court there would likely decline to hear the case because all of the witnesses and lawyers would have to travel to Tennessee in order to appear in court, which would make little sense.
In short, when a worker sues a railroad for injuries, the worker controls where and when the lawsuit is filed. However, the worker does not have infinite discretion. He or she must make a reasonable choice. Usually, the most qualified individual to make that choice is the worker’s attorney.