The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) was passed by Congress in 1908, for the purpose of providing compensation to railroad employees who are injured on the job. It enables injured employees to bring claims directly against their employers where it can be shown that the railroad’s negligence contributed in whole or in part to the injury.
Negligence in the FELA context is defined as the railroad’s failure to exercise reasonable care in its obligation to the employee. Negligence can be as a result of not providing a safe place to work, proper tools and equipment to do the job, or adequate help or training. The courts have held that the employer’s negligence does not have to be the sole cause of the accident. So long as the carrier was at fault in the slightest degree, that negligence is enough to establish the right to bring a claim.
If the employee was also at fault in causing the accident the jury can reduce the award by the percentage that the employee was at fault. For example, if the damages totaled $100,000.00 but it was determined that the employee was 25% at fault, the net award would be $75,000.00. Under the FELA the injured employee may file a lawsuit in the state or federal courts and have a jury decide the damages, if any, to which he or she is entitled. Unless the claim is settled, the lawsuit must be filed within three (3) years of the date of the accident.
As distinguished from state workers’ compensation laws, there is no fixed schedule of benefits, whether weekly or otherwise, to which an employee is entitled. Instead, there are elements that determine damages. They include lost wages, pain and suffering, permanency of injury and effect on life style, future pain and suffering, future lost wages, and out-of-pocket expenses including medical costs.
Frequently the damages under the FELA can be significantly greater than that which would normally be collected if under workers’ compensation. Because the FELA involves bringing a claim directly against the employer, the railroads make every effort to keep the amount they pay out as low as possible.
In order to assist railroad employees in exercising their FELA rights, and because it is a specialized area of the law, it is recommended that members consult the directory of the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys (ARLA) for guidance, advice and representation. ARLA member attorneys and firms are all experienced in handling FELA claims.
When discussing representation for a FELA claim, it is important for members to learn about the experience of each potential representative and compare them with one another. To assist members in conducting such research, the National Division has prepared a list of inquiries that should be asked by members seeking legal advice.