Railroad Worker Injuries and FELA Claims

How the Federal Employers' Liability Act gets compensation to railway workers who are injured on the job.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

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.

What Is FELA?

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.

Who Can Make a FELA Claim?

FELA applies to almost any person who is employed by a railroad, in almost any capacity. That includes:

  • railyard workers
  • engineers
  • electricians
  • maintenance crews
  • inspectors
  • dispatchers
  • conductors
  • brakemen
  • signalmen, and
  • employees who handle clerical work and other administrative tasks in a railroad company's office.

Can Independent Contractors File FELA Claims?

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.

What Damages Can Be Recovered In a FELA Claim?

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:

  • past and future medical expenses
  • past and future lost wages and lost earning capacity
  • physical and mental pain and suffering, and
  • permanent partial or full disability.

What Type of Injuries Does FELA Cover?

FELA covers almost every variety of injury or illness that might occur because of accidents or unsafe conditions in the workplace, including:

  • traumatic injuries like broken bones, pulled muscles, and lacerations
  • repetitive motion injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis, and
  • diseases like cancer and mesothelioma caused by exposure to harmful chemicals.

Do I Have to Prove the Railroad Was Negligent?

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:

  • the railroad (or one of its employees or "agents") was negligent, and
  • that negligence was also a cause of the employee's injury.

A railroad's negligence might lead to an employee injury in countless ways, but some of the most common scenarios include:

  • failure to follow workplace safety rules
  • inadequate training of employees
  • defective or inadequate equipment and tools, and
  • understaffing.

Learn more about negligence and injury cases.

Is FELA Fault Ever Automatic?

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).

Does FELA Apply to an Outside Contractor's Negligence?

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.

What If the FELA Claimant Partly Caused Their Own Injury?

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.

Are There Time Limits on Bringing a FELA Claim?

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.

When Does the Statute of Limitations Begin to Run On a FELA Claim?

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:

  • you've suffered an injury or illness, and
  • the injury or illness is work-related.

Where Do I File a FELA Lawsuit?

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.

What Should Railroad Workers Do After an On-the-Job Injury?

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:

  • report the accident to your supervisor and fill out any necessary paperwork
  • ask your supervisor to contact a representative of your union (if you belong to one)
  • get medical attention right away
  • write down the names of co-workers and anyone else who might have seen the accident, and
  • take pictures of your injuries, the scene of your accident, and anything else that might be relevant.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a FELA Claim?

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:

  • Bigger railroad companies will likely have their own FELA claims agent, whose job is to minimize the value of your claim, question the nature and extent of your injuries, and otherwise make sure the company pays out as little as possible. There's no substitute for having a lawyer fight these battles for you.
  • You might be required to submit to a medical examination by a doctor who's chosen by the railroad and its FELA claims agent. It's crucial to be able to counter any potentially harmful medical opinions this railroad-affiliated doctor might offer, with medical evidence of your own, and that might require the assistance of medical experts. As part of their fee agreement, a lawyer will usually front the costs associated with any experts or consultants needed to help boost your case.

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.

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