In a previous post, I discussed the medical treatment provisions of the Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA) that prohibit railroads from denying, delaying, or interfering with the medical treatment of an employee "who is injured during the course of employment," and prevents discipline to an employee for "following orders or a treatment plan of a treating physician." In 2015, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals limited the scope of that protection to only on-duty injuries in Bala v. Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. v. DOL. Later cases have called that interpretation into question.
In Jones v. Illinois Central Railroad Co., a district court in Louisiana considered whether a valid FRSA claim could be brought when a railroad failed to promptly call an ambulance for an employee suffering from preexisting high blood pressure who was ultimately disabled due to a brain hemorrhage. The railroad argued that Jones is not protected by the FRSA because he did not suffer a work-related injury, following the reasoning of the Bala court. The Louisiana court disagreed. It held that an injury may occur "during the course of employment" either if it occurred while the person is on duty or it was work-related in the sense that it was caused by work. Jones' condition, although not caused by his work at the railroad, manifested itself during the time that he was on-duty. The Court held that this was enough to allow him to pursue an FRSA claim for the railroad's delay in providing him medical attention.
More recently, in Williams v. Grand Trunk Western RR Co., the Administrative Review Board (ARB) directly rejected the Bala decision and held that the FRSA applies to claims of retaliation for following the treatment plan of a physician without regard to whether the treatment is for an injury on duty. Williams was terminated by the railroad for excessive absenteeism after missing several days from work at the direction of his doctor to treat depression and anxiety. The Board held that it was clear that "Congress did not intend to foreclose protection from railroad workers who were following a physician's treatment plan for a non-work-related condition or injury."
These subsequent decisions do not directly overrule the Third Circuit's decision in Bala, leaving a conflict in the law. The ultimate interpretation of the FRSA provisions will be resolved by a higher court. In the meantime, we will continue to argue for a broad reading of the FRSA to best protect the rights of railroad workers.