The Tenth Circuit issued its opinion in Smith v. Rail Link on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.
Plaintiff-Appellant Bridget Smith worked for Rail Link, Inc. (“Rail Link”) as a freight operator at the Belle Ayre Mine in Wyoming. She was injured on the job, and sued Rail Link and its corporate parent Genessee & Wyoming, Inc. (“GWI”) in federal district court, asserting that the companies were liable for her injuries under the Federal Employers Liability Act (“FELA”). FELA provides, in certain circumstances, a federal cause of action for injured employees of common carriers by railroad. The Defendants moved for summary judgment, contending that they were not subject to FELA liability for Ms. Smith’s injuries because FELA only applies where a defendant is the injured worker’s employer and is a common carrier. Rail Link argued it was a not a common carrier, and GWI argued it was neither a common carrier nor Ms. Smith’s employer. The district court granted summary judgment for both Defendants. Ms. Smith appealed.
Rail Link’s potential liability in this case turned not on whether Rail Link was acting as a common carrier at the mine where Ms. Smith was injured, but instead depended on whether Rail Link was a common carrier at other facilities. That Ms. Smith never worked at those facilities is of no moment. An employer is a common carrier everywhere for FELA. purposes. The Tenth Circuit determined that the question was whether Rail Link operated a going railroad that carries for the public. The Tenth Circuit concluded that Rail Link did not, and was therefore not a common carrier under FELA.
Ms. Smith asserted GWI was her employer under common law master-servant principles. The Supreme Court has made it clear that FELA applies not only to “nominal” employers of an injured plaintiff, but also to “common-law” employers. However, the Tenth Circuit found that Ms. Smith did not show any connection between GWI’s administrative control over Rail Link and any control over what Rail Link’s employees actually did in the field on a day-to-day basis. Ms. Smith offered no evidence to support an inference that GWI’s control over administrative functions ever affected any physical conduct of Rail Link employees. The concept of employment under FELA is a broad one, but to show an employment relationship, a plaintiff still must offer some evidence that physical conduct was or could have been controlled by an alleged employer. The record here was lacking in this regard, compelling a ruling in GWI’s favor.