The Railroad Safety Appliance Act (49 U.S.C section 20301-20303) which was enacted in 1893, made air brakes and automatic couplers mandatory for all railroad trains in the United States. The Act marked a noticeable drop in railroad accidents on the American railroads. The first two sections, deal with the issue of safety equipment like secure handholds, air brakes and couplers, and the third section deals with companies that conduct business with trains not complying with the first two sections.
The law requires railroad cars to have handholds, ladders and grabirons in good condition. It outlines that a locomotive engineer should be able to control the train speed with automatic brakes and not require a brakemen to use a hand brake in order to slow the train.
The act requires the train company to equip all of its trains with automatic couplers. These couplers must be able to couple and uncouple train cars automatically without men needing to walk in between the train cars in order to uncouple them manually. This allows for “greater security to men in coupling and uncouple cars.” Going between cars is a big risk for losing an arm or leg or getting killed.
This federal safety rule states that it is unlawful for companies to conduct business with those train companies or persons that do not comply with the Railroad Safety Appliance act.
Rairoad companies are held liable for ensuring the equipment is in proper working order. If a handhold or any other equipment is defective then negligence does not need to be proved in order to show liability on the part of the railroad company. Even the fault of the railway worker personally is inadmissible in court as a defense for the railroad company. Thus, the Safety Appliance Act effects nearly absolute liability on the carrier. Only if the injured worker was the sole cause of the accident can contributory negligence bar recovery.
So, safety appliance cases are some of the best cases under the FELA, the Federal Employers Liability Act, which covers railraod employees who get hurt or killed on the job. If the reason for the accident was a coupler that did not work correctly, that can be a very strong case. The key is proving the defect, so it is critical that the train crew, typically a conductor, report the injury immediately and identify the faulty equipment.