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FELA Railroad Lawyer

Basics of Railroad Retirement Disability Pensions

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Editor: Rick Shapiro
Profession: FELA Attorney

October 09, 2006

By Rick Shapiro

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Category: Railroad Injury Law

Just as rail workers do not have traditional workers' compensation, and instead fall under the FELA, they also have a unique system relating to career ending disability or retirement. During their employment, the employee and employers contribute to a retirement system which is administered by a quasi-governmental agency set up by federal statute, called the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB). Both the railroad and workers fund the system through payroll deductions and taxes. There are two types of long term disability benefits available to railroad workers. The first is called an "occupational disability" benefit. Basic standards provide that if a rail worker has more than 240 months of rail service credit with the RRB (20 years of total service from one or more railroads) and suffers cumulative injuries or diseases which render the worker medically disqualified from their specific and usual railroad occupation, then the worker may be entitled to this monthly disability benefit.

The amount of monthly benefit is determined based on prior gross wages under a formula available from the RRB offices. The monthly benefit is received by the worker so long as the worker is unable to medically perform their usual occupation previously held with the railroad and as long as alternate wage income falls below the ceiling set by RRB regulations. On the other hand, the right to such benefits terminates if the worker becomes medically qualified to do the prior railroad job, or if the worker takes on another wage earning job and earns more than the monthly wage income amount prescribed by the RRB.
The second type of pension is known as a "total disability" benefit. The standards for this type of disability are much more stringent. The worker must be totally disabled from all forms of regular gainful work activity, and the standards for this type of disability are similar to those for a social security disability award. A determination of whether the worker's cumulative injuries or diseases constitute a "total disability" is a medical determination approved by the Railroad Retirement Board. A certain total number of months of rail service credit with the RRB is mandated before total disability qualification is available under the applicable medical standards. Certain enhanced benefits are also available to the rail worker qualified for a "total" disability.
The determination of the availability of benefits is not made by the railroad employer, but is entirely made by the Railroad Retirement Board system. Often, rail workers labor under a misconception that the railroad employer controls the right to the benefits, but this is incorrect. On the other hand, it is true that a railroad's medical department may assist and concur in the disability decision of the worker's physician, and this may help the worker with the RRB's ultimate decision.
A railroad worker's receipt of either an occupational disability or total disability pension may not be used as reduction or mitigation of damages evidence by a railroad employer in the worker's FELA action. In other words, if a railroad worker is medically disqualified from working as a brakeman due to an on-the-job injury, and if the worker sues under the FELA, the railroad employer may not offer evidence that the plaintiff is receiving a monthly occupational or total disability pension from the RRB. Such evidence is normally considered to be a "collateral" or "side" source of compensation which does not originate from the railroad itself in the FELA action.
However, the employing railroad is entitled to offer other types of reduction or mitigation of damages evidence, including contentions that the employee could return to work in his prior railroad job or some other particular job, irrespective of the worker's entitlement to a RRB pension.

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