Railroad Worker Injuries & FELA Coverage

A Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) claim is usually a railroad employee's sole legal remedy for on-the-job injuries.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law

Railroads play an important role in the transportation of freight and passengers in the United States, and while jobs in the railroad industry are safer than they used to be, railroad worker injuries still occur, and can have significant consequences.

Most employees who suffer a work-related injury will file a workers' compensation claim. But railroad workers are an exception. Their avenue of relief lies with the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). In this article, we'll explain how FELA works, what kinds of losses are covered, and more.

What Is the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA)?

The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) is a federal law that's more than a century old. Congress created it in response to the high number of railroad workers getting hurt on the job.

FELA serves as the primary source of legal compensation for injured railroad workers, whether they get injured on a track, in a railyard, or in an office. As long as the worker gets hurt during the course of employment and was an employee of a railroad engaged in interstate commerce, FELA will usually apply.

The "interstate commerce" element means that the railroad does business in (or does business that "touches") more than one state. Given the nature of railways, almost any railroad worker will be eligible to utilize the FELA claim process. An exception might exist where an employee is hurt while working for a small, local commuter line (one that doesn't connect with a more expansive rail network).

How Does a FELA Claim Work?

Unlike the workers' compensation system, in which payment to the employee is automatic regardless of fault for the accident leading to the claim, a railroad worker can only obtain compensation for an injury if they can prove the defendant (usually the railroad company) was at least partially negligent in connection with the incident.

Still, proving negligence in a FELA claim is usually easier than in a conventional personal injury claim. That's because the worker must only prove that the railroad's negligence played at least some role in causing the worker's harm. In other words, the employee does not need to show that the railroad company's negligence was the primary or sole cause of the employee's injury. This is sometimes referred to as a "featherweight" burden of proof. But when the worker bears some amount of fault, his or her compensation will be reduced accordingly, since FELA claims are subject to a "pure comparative negligence" rule.

For example, let's say a railroad worker gets struck by a train car that began moving on its own because it was not properly secured in a siding. But when the worker got hit, they were responding to a text message on their smartphone.

The worker's FELA claim ends up going to trial, and the jury determines that the railroad was 40 percent at fault for the worker's injury, while the worker was 60 percent at fault. If the worker's claimed losses total, $100,000, they can still recover $40,000 in damages.

Many recoveries through FELA will involve the following types of railroad company negligence:

  • failure to properly maintain or enforce safety rules
  • inadequate training of employees
  • insufficient workforce to safely get a job done, and
  • failure to provide sufficient tools, equipment, or safety protections.

What Can a Railroad Employee Recover Under FELA?

In addition to traumatic injuries that occur on the job, FELA will also provide compensation for repetitive motion injuries, occupational diseases, and the aggravation of a pre-existing condition. Some of the most common FELA claims involve injuries stemming from:

  • a worker getting hit by a train car
  • mishaps involving train couplers
  • street crossing collisions, and
  • cumulative stress on the worker's body.

Learn more about how the nature and extent of injuries can affect a claim.

But one of the most important aspects of FELA is that it places no limits on the amount of money a railroad employee can recover in a lawsuit. This money can go to pay for an injured worker's:

Note that an injured worker cannot recover punitive damages under FELA.

Time Limits for a Railroad Worker's FELA Lawsuit

Under FELA, an injured worker must start his or her lawsuit within three years from the time of injury. Missing this three-year window means the lawsuit will likely be dismissed.

In situations where it takes some time for the worker to notice the injury, or to attribute it to his or her job, the three-year clock might not necessarily begin to run until the worker knows (or reasonably should be able to figure out) that they have a work-related injury.

If you've been injured on the job while working in the railroad industry, it might make sense to talk with a lawyer to understand your options.

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