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KULAVIC v. CHICAGO & ILLINOIS MIDLAND

April 2, 1991

DANIEL L. KULAVIC, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHICAGO & ILLINOIS MIDLAND RAILWAY COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, District Judge:

OPINION

Does a decision by a Public Law Board pursuant to the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 45 U.S.C. § 151-161 (1926), have a preclusive effect on the availability of damages in a subsequent action brought pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51-60 (1982)?

In short, yes.

I. Factual Background

Plaintiff Daniel Kulavic (Kulavic), a carman in the employ of the Chicago & Illinois Midland Railway Company (Railroad), was involved in a physical altercation with his foreman on August 30, 1985. Kulavic was injured in the altercation and was placed on an eighty day working suspension. After conducting a physical examination of Kulavic and consulting with Kulavic's privately retained physicians (three of whom specifically released him to return to work with the fourth not commenting on his physical ability to work) the Railroad's General Surgeon deemed Kulavic capable of resuming his former position as a carman. Kulavic was instructed by letter to return to work on June 9, 1986.

Kulavic failed to report to work on June 9, 1986, and likewise failed to report on June 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, or 17. He contacted his supervisor and contended that his continued absence was due to the refusal of his (Kulavic's) private physicians to authorize his return to work. Kulavic's supervisor responded that any absence from work for medical reasons had to be substantiated by "medical evidence from a reputable physician." Evidence subsequently submitted by Kulavic failed to meet the Railroad's requirements.

On July 15, 1986, an investigation was conducted by the Railroad regarding Kulavic's failure to report to work as instructed. Kulavic was present and represented at the investigation. In response to the Railroad's allegation of unauthorized absence, Kulavic again contended that his physical condition prevented his return. After considering the evidence and testimony offered by Kulavic, the Railroad rejected his claims that he was physically unable to return to his former position as a carman and terminated his employment on July 25, 1986.

Approximately one month after the denial of his appeal by PLB # 4284, Kulavic filed the present FELA action against the Railroad seeking damages for injuries suffered as a result of the altercation with his foreman on August 30, 1985. On the issue of liability, the jury returned a verdict for Kulavic. The preclusive effect of PLB 4284's decision on damages available to Kulavic in the FELA action at bar is now before the Court.

II. Analysis

The RLA was enacted by Congress in 1926 to provide for the prompt, efficient, and final resolution of labor disputes stemming from railroad collective bargaining agreements. See Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Sheehan, 439 U.S. 89, 99 S.Ct. 399, 58 L.Ed.2d 354 (1978). Through the enactment of the RLA, Congress specifically intended to keep disputes which fell within the purview of the Act out of the courts. Sheehan, 439 U.S. at 94, 99 S.Ct. at 402. This desire for finality is reflected in the section of the RLA which creates the National Railroad Adjustment Board.*fn1 The RLA provides in relevant part:

  The awards of the several divisions of the
  Adjustment Board shall be stated in writing. A
  copy of the awards shall be furnished to the
  respective parties to the controversy, and the
  awards shall be final and binding upon both parties
  to the dispute. In case a dispute arises involving
  an interpretation of the award the division of the
  Board upon request of either party shall interpret
  the award in the light of the dispute.

45 U.S.C. § 153, subd. 1(m) (1986) (emphasis added).

The FELA, enacted in 1906, was intended to provide a tort remedy for railroad workers injured on the job. See Lancaster v. Norfolk and Western Railway Co., 773 F.2d 807 (7th Cir. 1985). The main purpose of the Act was to give injured railroad workers the ability to overcome traditional defenses to tort liability which had barred their actions in the past. Lancaster, 773 F.2d at 813. Because of its broad intended scope and language, the FELA has been interpreted to include both the negligent actions of ...


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