THE FELA - The Best Protection A Railroader Can Have

History of the FELA

Railroad workers, unlike most working men and women, are not covered by state workers' compensation statutes. Instead, when a railroad worker is injured on the job, his or her compensation is governed by a Federal law known as the Federal Employers' Liability Act, commonly called FELA. The FELA came into being in 1908 as a result of public anger over the devastating injuries and loss of life that were an all too common part of life on the rails. The hazards of railroading were so well known that the United States Supreme Court observed that, “in 1888 the odds against a railroad brakeman dying a natural death were almost four to one,” and that “the average life expectancy of a switchman in 1893 was seven years.”

Congress as also dissatisfied with the status of the law as it related to railroad employers and their employees. Unfortunately, prior to 1908, few railroad workers or their families received any compensation for their injuries. Therefore, Congress enacted the FELA in order to protect railroad workers and to help insure that they were able to seek and receive adequate compensation for their on the job injuries. The relevant statute, Title 45 of the United States Code, Section 51, states:

Every common carrier by railroad while engaging in commerce between any of the several States or Territories, or between any of the States and Territories, or between the District of Columbia and any of the States or Territories, or between the District of Columbia or any of the States or Territories and any foreign nation or nations, shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier in such commerce, or, in case of the death of such employee, to his or her personal representative, for the benefit of the surviving widow or husband and children of such employee; and, if none, then of such employee's parents; and, if none, then of the next of kin dependent upon such employee, for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier, or by reason of any defect or insufficiency, due to its negligence, in its cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track, roadbed, works, boats, wharves, or other equipment.

By enacting the FELA, Congress set up a system where injured railroad workers can sue their employers in court for damages resulting from the negligence of their employers. The worker may sue in either state or Federal court in any district where the railroad is doing business.

Why the FELA Is Better Than Workers' Comp

The law also provides a much broader array of remedies than did the traditional workers' compensation system. For the most part, workers' compensation benefits tend to be fixed and arbitrary, and to grossly under-compensate injured workers. For example, under workers' compensation, an injured employee receives only partial wage reimbursement benefits and nothing for pain and suffering. Under the FELA, however, an injured railroad worker can recover all of the damages traditionally associated with a law suit, including all of his or her lost wages and benefits (past and future), medical expenses (past and future), pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life.

To recover under the FELA, the injured worker must first establish some negligence on the part of the railroad. Again, this differs from workers compensation laws which do not require the employee to prove negligence. However, the amount of negligence that must be demonstrated under the FELA is slight. Essentially, the worker needs to establish that the railroad failed to provide him or her with a reasonably safe place to work.

The FELA also has provisions to deal with situations in which a worker's own negligence may have combined with that of the railroad to bring about the injury (a principle known as “contributory negligence”). Basically, the way the law works is that if a railroad worker is found to be partly responsible for an accident, any damage award will be reduced by the workers' contributory negligence. For example, if a jury decides that an injured worker is entitled to a total recovery of $100,000 (for lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.), but also decides that the worker was himself 25% responsible for causing the injury, the ultimate recovery by the employee would be $75,000 - the jury's $100,000 verdict minus 25% of that amount for the employee's own contributory negligence.

In some cases where the railroad has violated a Federal railroad safety law, such as the Safety Appliance Act or Locomotive Inspection Act (see related story), there is no reduction for contributory negligence and the railroad will be liable for all damages. Another important protection of the FELA is that it makes it a crime for a railroad to intimidate its workers from providing information about an accident to an injured employee's attorney.

Fighting to Keep the FELA

Unfortunately, rather than focusing on improving safety, every year the railroads instead lobby Congress in an attempt to weaken the FELA. Their goal is not to help the employees they have injured, but rather to change the law so that they can pay less to those employees in damages. Railroad unions have been diligent in protecting the FELA from these attacks, and YJB has also been very active in the fight to preserve the critical protections afforded to our railroad clients under the law.

The FELA lawyers of Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, PLC invite you to contact their office for further discussion of this topic. This article is designed for general information only and should be considered neither formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer client relationship.