What is the FELA?

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) is a federal law passed by Congress in 1908 in recognition of the inherent dangers associated with employment in the railroad industry. It was designed to allow railroad workers to be fairly compensated for injuries sustain on-the-job. Prior to the passage of the FELA, injury and death statistics among railroad workers were appalling. In 1889, for example, the railroad was responsible for over 2,000 deaths and over 20,000 injuries in just one year. The average life expectancy for a brakeman was only about six years from the date of hire, making it one of the most dangerous jobs in America. While railroad safety has improved vastly over the past century, it remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

In general, the FELA provides:

“Every common carrier by railroad engaging in commerce between any of the several states . . . shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier in such commerce . . . 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.”

The purpose of the FELA is to promote a safe workplace and to compensate railroad workers when they are injured as a result of their employer’s negligence. It is the exclusive remedy for railroad workers to recover from their employer for on-the-job personal injury or death.

Who can bring a FELA claim?

The FELA covers all railroad workers including conductors, engineers, carmen, electricians, machinists, trackmen/maintenance of way, signal maintainers, bridge & building workers, yardmasters, pipefitters/sheet metal workers, welders, carpenters, and laborers.

In addition, a wrongful death claim can be pursued for the benefit of the surviving spouse and children of the employee. If the employee was single with no children, then the employee’s parents will be next in line to pursue the claim. If the employee has no surviving parents, then the next of kin dependent upon the employee would be able to bring the claim. Regardless of who brings a FELA death claim, they must be the appointed estate representative.

What are the requirements of a FELA claim?

In contrast to workers’ compensation statutes, which provide compensation for on-the-job injuries regardless of fault by an employer, the FELA is a fault-based statute. This means that recovery requires proof that the railroad’s negligence played a part in causing a worker’s injury.

Negligence can be established in many ways, but in general, it is done by showing that the railroad failed to provide a reasonably safe place to work. If a railroad fails to provide a reasonably safe place to work, and that failure contributes to an injury, in whole or in part, then the railroad is liable for all damages caused by its negligence. Even if a railroad worker is also partially at fault, the FELA allows the worker to recover for the percentage of the railroad’s negligence that contributed to an injury.

An exception to the negligence requirement is when the railroad is found to be in violation of a federal safety regulation such as the Safety Appliance Act or the Locomotive (Boiler) Inspection Act. These regulations involve safety equipment on locomotives and rail cars. Other federal regulations may be implicated as well, including regulations that require railroads to ensure that vegetation is properly managed and that track beds have adequate drainage. If a railroad is found to have violated a federal safety regulation, it will be strictly liable for all resulting injuries, regardless of any fault on the part of the worker.

Types of FELA claims

In addition to providing compensation for traumatic bodily injuries sustained from railroad-related tasks, the FELA also covers injuries due to toxic exposures. Many railroad workers were regularly exposed to substances such as asbestos, diesel exhaust, silica dust, creosote, welding fumes, chemical solvents, and weedkillers such as Roundup throughout their careers.

These substances have been shown to cause various forms of cancer including mesothelioma, lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, laryngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, and colon cancer. Other respiratory diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis and scleroderma are also linked to railroad exposures. Most major railroads KNEW about the dangers of these exposures and failed to warn and/or protect their workers, which constitutes negligence.

What damages are available to a FELA claimant?

Although the FELA requires a showing of the railroad’s negligence, FELA awards are generally much higher than those of workers’ compensation claims. That is because the FELA allows for the recovery of actual damages. The categories of damages that may be recovered include:

  • Past and future wage loss
  • Out-of-pocket expenses
  • Past and future fringe benefits
  • Past and future pain and suffering, including emotional damage
  • Past and future medical expenses
  • The value of any lost limb
  • Shame and humiliation surrounding any physical disability, scar, or other disfigurement
  • Economic loss to your dependents if you die

Not all damages are recoverable under the FELA, however. Because the FELA is designed primarily to compensate the worker, claims for loss of consortium (deprivation of the benefits of a family relationship due to an injury) are not allowed. Further, regardless of how reckless the railroad is in causing an injury, the FELA does not allow punitive damages to be imposed against the railroad.

Time limits for FELA claims

All FELA claims against railroads must be brought within three years of when the worker first knew, or should have known, about his injury and its relationship to his employment. In the case of an acute injury or death, calculating this date is simple – three years from the date of the incident. For injuries that take time to develop, such as occupational cancer, the time begins to run when the worker first realizes that his condition was caused by an unsafe workplace. Since diseases such as cancer can take many years to develop after initial exposure, railroad workers may bring these types of claims even long after they retired.

How to file a FELA claim

The FELA is a complex law with a myriad of issues that can significantly impact the value of a case. And, since the damages can be so high, the railroad industry fights vigorously against having to pay these claims. As such, it is important to consult an experienced FELA attorney as soon as possible after an injury in order to preserve your rights and maximize your chance of recovery. If you were injured on the job, or have developed cancer as a result of your railroad career, call us today. Our consultations are always free.

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