Railroad Worker Injuries and FELA Claims​

train on railroad

How the Federal Employer's Liability Act gets compensation for railway workers who are injured on the job.

Long before state workers' compensation laws came into existence in our country, Congress worked to protect the rights of injured railroad workers through the enactment of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (commonly referred to as “FELA”). Under FELA, injured railway workers can seek damages in court for injuries suffered while on the job. Read on to learn more.  

What is FELA?

FELA claims are similar to workers' compensation claims in that both systems are designed to compensate injured workers for injuries suffered while working for employers. However, the similarities between the two systems generally end there.

In a workers compensation claim, the injured employee is not required to prove that the employer was negligent or otherwise at fault for the injury. The injured employee needs to show only that the injury occurred while in the course and scope of the employment.

In a FELA claim, by contrast, the injured employee is required to show that the employer was not only negligent but that the negligence was also a cause of the injury. In this way, a worker making a FELA claim has a higher hurdle to clear, when compared with a workers' compensation claim.

What Damages Can I Recover in a FELA Claim?

There are other differences between the two systems as well. In a workers compensation claim, the compensation to the injured employee is generally limited to medical expenses, lost income, and compensation for any resulting disability. The damages recoverable through a FELA claim, however, are more extensive. They can include:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Past and future lost wages
  • Physical pain and suffering
  • Mental and emotional suffering
  • Loss of earning capacity, and
  • Permanent partial or full disability.

In a workers compensation case, the injured employee generally must bring the claim in the particular state’s workers compensation court or state industrial court. Again, the rules are different for a FELA claim. A lawsuit brought by a railroad worker under FELA can typically be brought in any state or federal court.

What Type of Injuries Does FELA Cover?

Generally speaking, FELA covers four types of injuries that workers may experience:

traumatic injuries, such as joint sprains, broken bones, and pulled muscles

repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel or tendonitis

occupational diseases such as asbestosis, hearing loss, lung cancer, etc., and

aggravations of pre-existing conditions, such as where an injury accelerates or exacerbates an existing health problem within the body.

Do I Have to Prove the Railroad Was Negligent?

As mentioned above, to prevail in a FELA claim the railway worker must show not only that the railroad was negligent, but also that the railroad’s negligence played some role in causing the injury.

A railroad is typically a vast and complex organization with employees involved in many different roles throughout the company. Because of this, a railroad may be negligent in any number of ways that might lead to an employee injury. Typically, though, the railway’s negligent acts fall into one of the following categories:

  • Failing to properly create and maintain sufficient workplace safety rules
  • Failing to properly train employees
  • Failing to provide adequate equipment and tools, and
  • Failing to provide adequate manpower.

What If I Partly Caused the Accident?

Even if you were negligent and your negligence played a role in causing the accident, that is not a bar to pursuing a claim or collecting damages under FELA. However, the court will consider your share of fault when it comes to determining the number of damages you receive for your injury.

For example, if the court determines that the appropriate amount of damages you should receive for your injury is $20,000, and the court also finds that you were 25% at fault for your injury, the court will then reduce your damages by 25%, resulting in a recovery to you of $15,000.

Are There Time Limitations On Bringing the Claim?

The statute of limitations for bringing a FELA lawsuit is set by federal law. The time period within which you must bring your lawsuit is three years from the date of your injury. If you do not bring your lawsuit within that time period, your claim could be completely barred and the court will most likely determine that you are not entitled to receive any compensation at all.

Determining the date from which the statute of limitations begins to run becomes more problematic depending on the nature of the injury. For example, if you suffer from hearing loss or cancer, how do you determine the date of your injury? The general answer is that the three-year statute of limitations begins to run when you know, or should have known, that you have (1) suffered an injury, and (2) that the injury is work-related.

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