Both the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) and workers’ compensation serve the common goal of promoting safe working environments and compensating workers when they suffer from work-related injuries or illnesses.
What is Workers’ Compensation?
Many workers in the United States are covered by an employer insurance plan for workplace injuries known as workers’ compensation. It is a state-mandated insurance program, and each state has its own laws and programs for how it is implemented. Workers’ compensation statutes generally make the employer completely immune from any liability (such as for negligence) above the amount provided by the workers’ compensation statutory framework.
What is the FELA?
The federal government has a separate program that is mostly for federal employees. Railroad workers are covered by this separate set of protections rather than the traditional state workers’ compensation. This separate program is known as the Federal Employers’ Liability Act or “FELA”. The overall purpose of FELA is safety and to protect the general well-being of railroad workers. The statute provides that a common carrier by rail “shall be liable” to an employee who is injured by the negligence of the employer.
FELA was enacted in 1908 to protect and compensate railroad workers injured on the job. During the years of 1889-1920, there was a massive expansion in the U.S. for railroad use, and the expansion came with an increase of dangers experienced by railroad workers—including loss of limb and death. FELA was enacted by Congress as a way to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from accidents on interstate railroads so that workers could be better protected.
FELA does a great deal more than just protect railroad workers—it ensures that the railroad industry acts responsibly. FELA contains important information about the railroad industry’s responsibilities regarding the safety and wellbeing of workers. FELA serves to recognize that the backbone of the railroad industry is the safety of those who work to maintain it.
Prior to its inception, there was no remedy for injured railroad workers, and they were very limited as to their ability to recover from injuries sustained while working for the railroad. FELA became an important piece of legislation because it safeguards the rights of railroad workers from being exploited by requiring compensation for injuries due to negligence by their employers.
“The Federal Employers Liability Act was designed to put on the railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes, and lives which it consumed in its operation. Not all these costs were imposed, for the Act did not make the employer an insurer. The liability which it imposed was the liability for negligence.” -Justice William Douglas, U.S. Supreme Court
FELA was designed not only to discourage negligent conduct but also to provide liberal recovery for injured workers and to shift to the railroad industry part of the risks inherent in dangerous railway work.
To enforce compensation rights, the employee may file suit in United States district court or in a state court. The FELA remedy is based on tort principles of ordinary negligence and differs significantly from most state workers’ compensation benefit schedules.
To be successful under a FELA claim, the worker needs to prove that the railroad was at least partly legally negligent in causing the injury. Under FELA, a railroad employer is liable in damages to its employees for injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of the employer.
Other Examples of Federal Based Statutory Compensation
Seafarers employed on United States vessels who are injured because of the owner’s or the operator’s negligence can sue their employers under the Jones Act, which is a remedy very similar to the FELA one.
Dockworkers and other maritime workers, who are not seafarers working aboard navigating vessels, are covered by the Federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, known as US L&H.
How Do FELA and Workers’ Compensation Differ?
Although the protection FELA offers for railroad workers is similar to the workers’ compensation insurance provided in other industries, unlike workers’ compensation, FELA is a fault-based system.
To receive benefits under FELA, the injured railroad worker must prove that the injury was caused in whole or in part by the negligence of a railroad employee, its agent or contractor, or from a faulty piece of equipment. However, if the worker is not found to be 100% at fault, he has the right to sue for damages in either a state or federal court, which is not an option for workers’ compensation claimants.
FELA covers more than just bodily injuries sustained from working on the railroad all the livelong day. It also covers injuries due to asbestos exposure, as well as repetitive stress and cumulative trauma injuries.
In addition, FELA awards are generally much higher than those of workers’ compensation claims. FELA uses the legal doctrine of “comparative negligence”. This means that the jury determines the percentage of negligence for which each party is liable, and this establishes the percentage of the award to be allocated to the worker.
What to Do If You Are Injured During a Railroad Accident
If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a train accident while employed as a railroad worker, it is important that you understand your legal right to receive compensation for those injuries under FELA. You can also read about what to do if you are injured during a railroad accident.
Contacting a FELA Attorney at Morrow & Sheppard LLP
Claims under FELA can be quite complex. Different procedural rules and standards for liability apply in these cases than those applicable to traditional personal injury and workers’ compensation claims.
Those who have been hurt in a railroad accident should know that they have rights and contact an attorney who is experienced in FELA-related lawsuits. Doing so offers the best opportunity for injured railroad workers to pursue the relief they are entitled to.
The Railroad Accident Lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard Law Firm have a proven track record of helping injured workers recover compensation for their FELA claims. Call us today at (800) 489-2216 for a free and confidential consultation.