When railroad employees are injured on the job, they can use a special law called the Federal Employers' Liability Act to get compensation for medical treatment, lost earnings, and other harm related to the accident. Let's take a look at FELA claims, including who is covered, what kinds of losses can be compensated, where FELA claims can be filed, and more.
Back in 1908, long before state workers' compensation laws came into existence, Congress moved to protect the rights of injured railroad workers by passing the Federal Employers' Liability Act (commonly referred to as "FELA"). Under FELA, injured railway workers can seek compensation ("damages") in court for injuries suffered while on the job.
FELA claims are similar to workers' compensation claims in that both systems carve out legal remedies for workers who have been injured on the job, but there are several key differences between the two systems. We'll cover those differences—and much more—in the sections that follow.
Learn more about work-related injuries and your legal rights.
FELA applies to almost any person who is employed by a railroad, in almost any capacity. That includes:
Even if an injured worker is an independent contractor—and not an employee of the railroad—they might be able to file an injury claim under FELA, especially if the worker's activities were closely supervised and controlled by the railroad. Learn more about employees versus independent contractors.
The categories of compensation ("damages") that are usually recoverable through a FELA claim are often more extensive than what can be received through workers' compensation benefits. Specifically, a FELA claim can typically include compensation for:
FELA covers almost every variety of injury or illness that might occur because of accidents or unsafe conditions in the workplace, including:
In a workers' compensation claim, an injured employee isn't required to prove that their employer was negligent (or otherwise at fault for the injury) in order to get compensation. But with a FELA claim, the injured employee is usually required to show that:
A railroad's negligence might lead to an employee injury in countless ways, but some of the most common scenarios include:
Learn more about negligence and injury cases.
In a sense, yes. If the railroad worker's injury happened in connection with the railroad's violation of a safety regulation or other law aimed at ensuring a safe workplace, the injured worker usually doesn't need to prove anything more in terms of the railroad's negligence (just the fact of the violation).
In many situations, if a railroad employee's injury was caused by the negligence of an outside contractor hired out by the railroad, the contractor will be considered an "agent" of the railroad, and any negligence on the part of the contractor will be passed on to the railroad for purposes of a FELA claim. Examples here might include smaller short line railroads, construction companies, and other outsiders who are contracted to work alongside the railroad, either on an ongoing or temporary basis.
Even if the railroad employee's own negligence played a role in causing the accident, that's not a bar to pursuing a claim or collecting damages under FELA. But the concept of "comparative negligence" applies to FELA claims, so the court will consider the claimant's share of fault for their own injury, and reduce any damages award accordingly.
For example, if the court looks at all the evidence and decides that an injured signalman's total damages are $100,000, but that the signalman was also 25 percent to blame for his injury, the court will reduce the signalman's damages by 25 percent, leaving him with an award of $75,000.
The time limit for bringing a FELA lawsuit is set by a federal "statute of limitations." This law says that a FELA lawsuit must be filed within three years of the date of injury. If you don't bring your lawsuit within three years, your claim could be completely barred and you won't receive any compensation at all.
If improperly secured equipment falls on a railroad worker, breaking his shoulder, it's pretty clear that the three-year "clock" for filing a FELA claim starts on that day. But the question gets more complicated depending on the nature of the injury. For example, if you suffer from hearing loss or cancer caused by unsafe working conditions, 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, in the eyes of the law) that:
FELA is a federal law, but a lawsuit brought by a railroad worker under FELA can typically be brought either in federal court or state court.
It's important to note that most injury cases settle, and FELA claims are no exception. A settlement might even be reached before a lawsuit needs to be filed in court, if the injured worker and the railroad can reach an agreement that suits both sides. But protecting your rights doesn't start with filing a lawsuit.
Any time you're injured on the job as a railroad worker, it's crucial to protect your health and your legal rights, regardless of whether you end up filing a FELA claim. Here a some first steps to take:
A FELA claim isn't the kind of legal matter you want to try resolving on your own, especially if your injuries are serious. There are many reasons for this. For example:
In many parts of the country where railway hubs are located, local lawyers may specialize in FELA claims. Learn more about finding the right injury lawyer for you and your case.