Railroad workers are fatally injured at about twice the rate of the average American worker. Railroad yards can be dangerous places. Workers may be subjected to long hours, strenuous activity, and challenging physical labor.
Most workers don’t spend much time thinking about what would happen if they were injured on the job until they actually suffer an injury. But here is something to think about: almost every private employee in the United States can collect workers’ compensation for an on the job injury, but employees of interstate railroad companies cannot.
The reason for the distinction is that a federal law that applies only to railroad workers creates a unique legal system for resolving disputes about employee injuries.
In the sections that follow, we provide an overview of the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), by discussing its history and how it affects the average worker.
Congress passed FELA in 1908, and the law was designed specifically to alter the way that courts treated injuries to railroad workers. Between 1889 and 1920, railroad use in the United States increased six-fold. During this period, it was considered so dangerous to be a railroad worker that President Harrison compared the dangers to those faced by a soldier during war.
FELA was designed to increase workplace safety by providing strong legal remedies to injured employees. Congress believed that if railroads were forced to consistently pay large awards to injured employees, they would take whatever measures necessary to improve the safety of the workplace and decrease workers’ injuries.
FELA, though it has been altered over time, still provides the exclusive remedy for injured railroad employees. Note that FELA applies to employees of railroad companies that operate in more than one state ("interstate" companies); it likely does not apply to local commuter railways.
FELA affects railroad employees both directly and indirectly. In a sense, all workers are positively affected by FELA because the law gives railroads a strong financial incentive to create a safe workplace, not just on and around trains and in railyards, but also in offices and other support locations.
When railroads fail to provide safe workplaces to their employees, injured employees can get compensation under FELA. The desire to avoid costly lawsuits tends to prompt railroads to put extra effort into ensuring worker safety. As a result, railroad yards are safer today than they otherwise might be.
The direct impact of FELA only comes into play when railroad workers suffer injuries while at work. Unlike workers’ compensation statutes (which do not apply to railroad workers), FELA places almost no monetary limits on recoveries. So, awards in the millions of dollars might be appropriate in cases where a railroad employee suffers serious and permanent injuries on the job.
But FELA does not hold railroads liable for all injuries to employees. An employee must prove that the railroad’s negligence caused the employee’s injuries (unlike workers' compensation, which is a no-fault system). Nonetheless, the standard favors employees. The employer will be liable if employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought.
In other words, a worker need not show that the railroad was primarily responsible for the injury. In order to recover, the worker must show only that the railroad’s negligence played at least a small part in causing the injury.
It's also important to note that in order to make a claim under FELA, an employee need not spend most (or in some cases, any) of his or her time on or around trains or rail lines. Even clerical staff and other support employees are likely eligible to file a claim under FELA, as long as the injury occurred in the course and scope of employment.
So, in short, FELA makes it reasonably easy for a railroad employee to recover financial compensation from a railroad after suffering an at-work injury. Unlike workers’ compensation statutes, FELA does not significantly limit these awards. So, injured railroad employees benefit from FELA because the law improves their chances of obtaining substantial compensation from their employers when their injuries were caused by their employers’ unsafe work practices.