New Jersey Transit (NJT) is claiming sovereign immunity after a victory in the case Karns v. Shanahan 18 months ago, which upheld NJT’s argument that it is a part of the state of New Jersey, not an independent agency, and as such is not responsible for employee injuries.
In a second, unrelated case in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, an $824,000 ruling in favor of an injured NJT worker was overturned using that argument in late January. As a result, the state’s attorney general has requested that many workers’ injury lawsuits against the carrier be dismissed.
Representatives from SMART Transportation Division Designated Legal Counsel, including Rail Safety Coordinator Larry Mann, say that these rulings create a dangerous precedent and effectively nullify federal protections that all other railroad workers fall under.
NJT argues that it falls under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and has sovereign immunity, meaning that its workers are entitled to the state’s workers’ compensation program.
However, Mann told the Courier Post that this is not the case, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1917 where it was determined that railroad workers have no protections under state workers’ compensation laws because the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) preempts state laws.
“We’re not asking for anything new or novel,” SMART TD Designated Legal Counsel Robert Myers said in a hearing of the state’s Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee last week. “It’s the same thing as every other railroad in the country, and it’s all about safety.”
Assemblyman Dan Benson, the chairman of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, has sponsored a bill (A4689) that would waive NJT’s claim to sovereign immunity. The bill is still in committee, but co-sponsors told NJTV News that they plan to fast-track it.
“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 protections, and for things that extend to the general public,” Benson said in a committee hearing.
“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,” SMART TD N.J. State Legislative Director Ron Sabol said at the hearing.