Personal Injury Law: Transportation
Personal injury law involves those cases where someone is injured as a result of another's negligent, careless, or intentional act. Certain types of personal injury cases are treated apart from other types of personal injury cases because they involve a special set of laws requiring special knowledge of the laws. One example is workers' compensation, where virtually all workplace-related personal injuries are handled under the workers' compensation laws by lawyers knowledgeable about those laws.
Another example is transportation-related personal injury cases, which include personal injuries arising from aviation, railroad, and maritime accidents. They involve a complex set of Illinois and federal laws. Someone injured in a transportation-related event who needs legal help should seek the services of an attorney specializing in transportation-related accidents. The following is an overview of the rules that apply to transportation law.
Aviation. Following an aviation accident, several federal agencies may become involved, including the American Red Cross, the Department of State, the Department of Health and Human Services, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice. The Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance is the federal agency in charge of coordinating the activities of all these agencies. Their role is to help the federal agencies support the activities of the local authorities and the airline.
Under a federal law, the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, airlines have primary responsibility for notifying families and for providing logistical support, including providing family members with transportation to the crash site; coordinating grief counseling; providing onsite child care; identifying remains; setting up morgues; and coordinating media relations. The law doesn't apply to non-carrier accidents, such as those involving smaller commuter aircraft. They may, however, have their own response plans.
Federal law prohibits attorneys from communicating with any survivor or relative of a deceased person until 45 days following a major airline accident. The law applies to both direct contacts, such as phone calls, and indirect contacts, such as emails. The survivor or relative, of course, has the right to contact the attorney, and the law allows the attorney to respond to their questions.
An attorney experienced in aviation law will not only help you navigate the maze of laws and recover the benefits to which you are entitled, but he or she will also help shield you from those who may try to contact you following an accident. Among those who may try to contact you are members of the news media, law enforcement officials, lawyers or company representatives involved in the accident, lawyers who represent other parties involved in the accident, and insurance company representatives. You should, of course, cooperate with law enforcement officials, but all others you can simply refer to your lawyer.
Railroads. There are a few basic state rules that govern railroad operators. Railroads have a duty to keep railroad crossings reasonably safe. Railroad crews have a duty to sound a horn when approaching crossings. Railroad crews have a duty to look out for potential problems. For their part, those using the railroad have a duty to use reasonable care when crossing tracks or when using the railroad services.
A federal law, the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA), governs injuries to railroad employees. It operates similarly to the workers' compensation system for other employees, in the sense that it is their exclusive remedy. Unlike the workers' compensation system, however, it requires some negligence on the part of the railroad in order to recover compensation.
Maritime. Maritime law is its own world. It covers a fairly wide swath of accident types, from injuries about cruise ships to workplace injuries at harbors to accidents involving pleasure boaters. Because of the complexity of these claims, you should consider consulting with an attorney experienced in maritime law to make certain that your rights are fully protected.
Unless the injury occurs within a state's territorial waters, a work-related injury at sea won't be covered by workers' compensation. Instead, the injured worker should file a claim under a federal law called the Jones Act, which extends the Federal Employer's Liability Act to seamen. Even if your injury is covered under state workers' compensation laws, you may want to pursue a Jones Act claim because the benefits are normally more generous.
To qualify for coverage under the Jones Act the vessel that you were injured on must be "in navigation" at sea or in a body of water that is connected to interstate or international commerce, you must spend a substantial part of your work time on board the vessel, and you must contribute to the work of the vessel.
An injured person is entitled to compensation if an unseaworthy condition on board the vessel caused the injury. A condition is unseaworthy if the vessel, the crew, or the vessel's appliances are not reasonably fit for their intended purpose, which can occur if a piece of equipment is defective, the crew is inadequately trained, the number of persons assigned to complete a task is inadequate, or a condition onboard the vessel is unsafe.
Ordinary negligence principles can be used to recover under the Jones Act, with one variation that favors the injured person. A case can be established with only a slight showing of negligence because an employer owes a higher duty of care to a seaman than in an ordinary negligence case. Negligence can be shown if the employer is not following a safety statute, not providing adequate equipment for a job, engaging in a dangerous or unsafe method of work, or failing to correct an unsafe condition. The negligence must be the proximate cause of the injury, just as in ordinary negligence cases.
A seaman may collect general damages for pain and suffering, disfigurement, disability, and loss of enjoyment of life under the Jones Act. Claims under the Jones Act must be filed within three years from the date of injury.