A new bill would make it easier for current New Jersey Transit employees to file legal action against the agency for workplace injuries by limiting its ability to dismiss suits under sovereign immunity, which protects government agencies from being sued under the Eleventh Amendment.
In January, the agency successfully argued sovereign immunity to push for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a $824,152 award made to former NJ Transit employee Quitman Robinson, who said he was injured on the job. Senate Bill 3164, which passed 5-0 with one abstention on Monday, would cut down on how often NJ Transit could claim sovereign immunity.
“Given the state initially taking the tactic of using sovereign immunity to avoid liability, particularly for disability, places a lot of transit employees in a kind of no-man’s-land,” said Assembly Transportation Chair Daniel Benson, D-14th District, who sponsored the lower house version of the measure (Assembly Bill 4689) which an Assembly committee approved last month.
“All this bill does is allow the employee cases to proceed and keep the status quo for rail employees and nothing extra,” testified Ron Sable from the New Jersey chapter of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation workers union.
Robinson said the injury he sustained in November 2011 while doing railroad maintenance in Morristown was a result of the agency’s negligence. He successfully sued NJ Transit under the Federal Employee Liability Act, a 1908 law which provides legal recourse for rail workers nationwide who are injured while on the job and acts as a quasi-workers compensation insurance for rail employees.
Following the January decision, NJ Transit and the office of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal have been pressing a federal court to dismiss dozens of other similarly-natured cases. Benson said such an option by the administration would be muted in the future under the legislation.
“We have the ability through state law to say how state actors perform in those federal lawsuits, and this is just saying that New Jersey Transit, which we have oversight through the legislative process, … when they go to court, this is not something that they can use,” Benson added.
Both NJ Transit and the Attorney General’s office declined to comment.