Failed Couplings Under The Federal Safety Appliance Act

Hoey Farina Team
  • Hoey & Farina, P.C.
  • FELA Lawyers / Railroad Injury Attorneys
  • 1-888-425-1212


A railroader was injured due to a failed coupling. The claim agent for the railroad told the injured railroader that, because he stepped between the two cars, there was contributory negligence and he did not have a good claim. The railroader dealt directly with the railroad and settled his claim for less than what his claim was worth.


If an injured railroader can prove there is a violation of Section 2 of the Federal Safety Appliance Act (FSAA), such as a failed coupling, it doesn't matter whether the railroader stepped between the cars. The railroad is absolutely liable and there is no contributory negligence issue to reduce the railroader's recovery.


It shall be unlawful for any railroad to haul or permit to be hauled or used on its line any car not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and which can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going between the ends of the cars. The railroads have historically challenged Section 2 of the FSAA. The law today holds that in order to prove a Section 2 FSAA violation, there must be a failed coupling, one of the couplers has to be in the open position before impact and the drawbars cannot be misaligned prior to the attempted coupling.


Hoey & Farina represented Steve DeBiasio in his case against the former Illinois Central Railroad. DeBiasio v. ICRR, 52 F.3d 678 (7th Cir. 1995) became a landmark decision and helped define the guidelines for a plaintiff to prove the railroad's liability involving a coupling mechanism.

…The first avenue for establishing liability is to provide evidence that two cars failed to couple automatically upon impact. "[I]t is the failure to couple that triggers the railroad's absolute liability under section 2." Lisek, 30 F.3d at 829. In Affolder v. New York C. & St. L.R. Co., 339 U.S. 96, 98 (1950), the Court held that the plaintiff could meet his burden under § 2 by showing a failure to couple automatically upon impact. The railroad's duty to have couplers which couple automatically upon impact "is an absolute one requiring performance ‘on the occasion in question.'" Id. The plaintiff is not, therefore, required "to show a ‘bad condition' of the coupler." Affolder, 339 U.S. at 99; accord Reed v. Philadelphia, Bethlehem & New England R.R. Co., 939 F.2d 128, 130 (3d Cir. 1991) ("Because equipment failure itself suffices to fasten liability upon the railroad, an injured railworker need not show a defect in the coupler to recover for his injuries."). "In other words, the Act requires automatic coupling equipment and the failure to couple creates the nearly irrebuttable presumption that the Act has been violated." Lisek, 30 F.3d at 829.

The second method of establishing a violation of the FSAA is to show a defect in the coupling equipment. Although a plaintiff is not required to prove that the equipment was defective, see Affolder, 339 U.S. at 99, evidence that an employee was forced to step in between the lines because of defective equipment can establish liability in "the absence of a failed coupling attempt." Lisek, 30 F.3d at 831. Furthermore, direct evidence of a defect obviates the need to determine whether the Act was violated by a failure to couple on the occasion in question. In San Antonio & Aransas Pass Ry. Co. v. Wagner, 241 U.S. 476, 483-84 (1916), "evidence of bad repair in the equipment" was sufficient to establish liability and thus, the Court stated, "[w]e need not in this case determine . . . that the failure of a coupler to work at any time sustains a charge that the Act has been violated."

The railroad, however, "cannot be liable when it utilizes equipment that complies with the statutory mandate [and thus couples automatically upon impact] and is not defective." Lisek, 30 F.3d at 830. Therefore, two narrow defenses have emerged which, if properly proven by the railroad, may allow it to avoid liability. Both defenses address a situation where the couple was not "set properly." Kavorkian v. CSX Transp., Inc. 33 F.3d 570, 573 (6th Cir. 1994). Liability under § 2 "assumes that the coupler was placed in a position to operate on impact." Affolder, 339 U.S. at 99. The first defense, which was recognized by the Court in Affolder, is the failure of railroad workers to ensure that at least one of the couplers was in the open position before impact. Id. If both couplers' knuckles are closed, the failure of the couplers to couple automatically upon impact is not that of the device. The second defense is a misaligned drawbar. Since "it is normal for nondefective automatic couplers to become misaligned as a part of ordinary railroad operations, then it is simply not reasonable to hold that such misalignment amounts to a violation of the Act." Lisek, 30 F.3d at 830-31. In both instances, though, "the defendant railroad has the burden of proving that the couplers were not set properly at the time that they failed to couple automatically." Kavorkian, 33 F.3d at 573; accord Maldonado v. Missouri Pac. Ry. Co., 798 F.2d 764, 768 (5th Cir. 1986), cert. denied 480 U.S. 932 (1987). "In other words, the defendant has to establish a separate cause for failure to couple, other than equipment failure." Reed, 939 F.2d at 132.


Hoey & Farina believes that an immediate investigation should be conducted in any case involving a failed coupling mechanism. This requires the immediate filing of a FELA lawsuit and the obtaining of an emergency order to inspect the coupling mechanism. Although it is the railroad's burden to prove both knuckles were closed or that the drawbars were misaligned, we strive to investigate and preserve the evidence that affirmatively shows that one knuckle was open and that the drawbars were not misaligned. This proactive approach through an immediate investigation was key to the successful recovery in the DeBiasio case.

If you have questions concerning failed couplings or other railroad work injury related issues, please call Hoey & Farina.

If you or a loved one have suffered a work injury or wrongful death on the railroad, call an experienced FELA lawyer / railroad injury attorney at Hoey & Farina, P.C. at 1-888-425-1212, or complete this form, for your FREE CONSULTATION. Hoey & Farina represents clients throughout the United States.


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