Many railroads offer injured employees light duty assignments so they can work prior to being released by the doctor to return to their regular duties. In some cases, the light duty assignment involves nothing other than reporting to work and sitting in an office; in other instances, the employees will actually have some limited work duties to perform. The railroads claim that this is intended to help rehabilitate the employee and enable him or her to continue to earn wages. In theory, the light duty assignment can help an employee weather the immediate economic impact of suffering an injury at work. There are a lot of dangers involved in taking such an assignment, however, that the injured employee should consider.
By returning to work before a doctor determines that you are completely healed, an injured employee runs the risk of making an injury worse. An aggravation of an injury at this point could be found to be caused not by the negligence of the railroad, but by the employee’s own negligence in failing to follow the doctor’s orders. (Remember, you are entitled to compensation under the FELA only if the railroad was at fault in causing your injury).
For example, consider the story of a railroad conductor who suffered a broken foot when he stepped on debris in the railroad yard where he worked. After some initial time off work, he accepted a light duty assignment with the railroad and came into the yard office while he was still on crutches and his foot was in a cast. The railroad told him to “take it easy, you can just come in and relax and we’ll pay you for a 40 hour week.” Once he reported, the employee’s manager gave him some paperwork to file. Instead of resting the injured foot and keeping it elevated, as his doctor ordered, he spent a few hours a day hopping across the yard office. At his next doctor’s appointment, the employee learned that the bone in his foot was not healing, and had actually become worse. He now needed surgery to repair the bone, and would miss an additional six weeks of work.
Under this scenario, the damages that were available to the employee under the FELA for the original incident may be cut off at the time he decided to work the “light duty” assignment. The additional six weeks of lost wages, the medical bills for the surgery, and the ongoing pain the employee suffered were not caused by the original accident, but by his own negligence in failing to comply with his doctor’s orders.