Legal precedent shields NJ Transit from federal safety lawsuits

NJ Transit fired 20-year veteran conductor Jerome Johnson — he claims — because Johnson kept reporting railroad safety problems to the feds. But he can’t sue NJ Transit under the federal law that’s protected railroad workers across the US since the early 1900s because the agency now claims it’s immune to those lawsuits for injuries and damages.

“There’s plenty of safety violations that we report. People are not willing to report them because they’re scared to go through what I went through,” said Johnson. “No recourse, no reparations for anything that happened to me. I’ve been out of work for 16 months.”

“I’ve handled railroad safety all over the country, and I’ve handled some egregious type instances,” said Lawrence Mann, an attorney representing rail unions, “but this is the most outrageous situation I’ve ever experienced. And I must tell you, the callousness of NJ Transit is just incredible.”

A panel of railroad experts and union representatives Thursday asked the Assembly Transportation Committee for help in fighting NJ Transit, which began claiming so-called sovereign immunity after it won a lawsuit, Karns v. Shanahan, 18 months ago. The suit upheld NJ Transit’s argument that it’s actually a part of the state, rather than an independent agency, setting a legal precedent that it’s not responsible for injuries, even those it negligently causes its employees, according to union spokespeople.

“An injured employee is faced with no assistance and likelihood of losing their homes, cars, et cetera, and even having no funds for eating,” said Ron Sabol, New Jersey state legislative director for SMART’s Transportation Division.

A battery of union attorneys is appealing and hopes to overturn the legal precedent, but in the meantime, railroad workers support a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Dan Benson that would waive NJ Transit’s legal immunity and restore a worker’s right to sue NJ Transit for negligence, past and future wage loss and pain and suffering.

“It’s our responsibility here on the Transportation Committee and as public servants to make sure that we’re not leaving our workers in an unsafe environment without protection, and for things that extend to the general public,” Benson said.

“It is vitally important that this legislation be enacted. Otherwise, there will be a crisis impacting all railroad employees injured or killed in this state,” Sabol said.

“We’re not asking for anything new or novel. It’s the same thing as every other railroad in the country, and it’s all about safety,” said rail unions’ attorney Robert Myers.

NJ Transit had no comment on any of these lawsuits, allegations or on the bill, but it stated in legal correspondence that it “would not leave its injured rail workers without a remedy for workplace injuries” and “intends for rail workers to be able to seek and receive any and all worker’s compensation benefits to which they would be entitled under New Jersey law.”

In 2016, NJ Transit logged the worst safety record of any major commuter railroad in the nation.

Attorneys say railroad workers must be able to report violations.

“To protect employees, to protect themselves, not just themselves, but passengers and members of the public. You can’t let dangerous equipment go out on the rail lines,” Mann said. “I get calls every week: ‘What do I do? I’ve been ordered to take out a defective locomotive. And if I refuse, they’re going to take me out of service.’ And without federal railroad safety laws, they have no coverage.”

“This is definitely the culture at NJ Transit, and it has to change,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s case is on hold pending appeal. The bill still needs to be moved out of committee. Sponsors say they’re going to fast track it.