Federal Employer’s Liability Act

By | March 4, 2009

Why You Need a FELA Lawyer

Enacted in 1908, the Federal Employers’ Liability Act was passed by Congress and signed into law to protect America’s railroad workers. The Act, commonly referred to as FELA (pronounced “fee-lah”), was the US Government’s response to the harsh treatment of workers that worked days and nights, seven days straight forging the railway into unsettled territories. The work was hard, the terrain was rough, the pay was low and many thousands of workers would die every year. Nevertheless, it was steady work for all types of immigrants that spoke no English and would otherwise not be able to get a job to feed their families. However, when a railroad worker was injured there was no remedy for them. Hence, Title 45 U.S.C. Section 51, et seq. (FELA) was Congress’ answer. A FELA lawsuit must be filed within three (3) years of the injury date or it is barred by the Statute of Limitations. At Gordon & Elias ( www.gordon-elias.com ), we have been fighting for the rights of injured railroad lawyers for years and know how to (1) get you your necessary medical treatment and (2) get you the maximum economic recovery you deserve.

FELA is a Fault Based System as Opposed to Workers Compensation

Assume for the moment that you work at Kroger; that you are mopping the floor and that you slip and fall in the soapy water and hurt your back. If this happened to you, you would be entitled to (1) your medical care for your injuries; (2) two-thirds of your average weekly wage while you are being treated; and (3) maybe a relatively small monetary settlement. But what if you could not return to medium or heavy type work again? Obviously, you would lose much money over the course of your work life. Also, and most importantly, note that you get these workers’ compensation benefits regardless of whether you were actually 100% at fault in causing your mishap. This is where FELA is quite different from workers’ compensation statutes. Under FELA, if you are hurt while working for the railroad, you are entitled to nothing unless you prove that your injury was caused by the negligence (failure to act with reasonable ordinary care) of someone else or from a faulty piece of equipment. If you are held to be 100% at fault, you get nothing! But unlike the hypothetical Kroger employee, you have the right to sue the railroad and you can choose to sue in either a state court or a federal court. If you are successful, you can recover money for pain and suffering, mental anguish, physical impairment, physical disfigurement, loss of wages in the past, and loss of future earning capacity, vocational rehabilitation damages and other types of damages.

Railroad Companies Have Been Fighting FELA Since Its Enactment

The railroad companies have been opposed to FELA since its enactment and have tried unsuccessfully, for a century, to limit its reach or have it repealed. Instead, in most instances, they have adopted a harsh strategy of simply not paying damages due. Many injured railroad employees have gone years without compensation, even though liability has been clearly established. These companies have the economic resources to try to “starve out” the worker.

“Comparative Negligence” Under FELA

Another concept to understand about FELA is that it applies the legal doctrine of “comparative negligence” to all FELA claims. Under a “comparative negligence” approach, the jury hears testimony about the negligent conduct of both parties–the railroad company and the railroad worker. Based on the evidence, the jury will determine what the injured party’s damages are and how much should be allocated to each party. Sometimes accidents happen not just from the railroad’s negligence but also from the worker’s too. The good thing about “comparative negligence” is, even though the jury may find a percentage of negligence on the worker, the injured worker still recovers the percentage of the jury’s monetary award that is equal to the Railroad’s percentage of negligence. By way of example only, if the worker is found 25% negligent and the railroad is found 75% negligent and the jury awards $875,000.00, then the Judgment would be that the worker recovers $656,250.00 plus costs. This is quite different than in almost all states where, if the injured person is found 51% or more negligent by the jury, the injured person would recover zero no matter how much the jury awarded for money damages.

In summary, FELA is one of the few areas of the law that is still favorable to an injured worker. All of us are keenly aware of the different states adopting what is called “tort reform”. In essence, through the hard work of insurance companies’ lobbyists working with state legislators, there have been many alterations to our tort system. This is not true of FELA since the Congress would be the legislative body that would have to alter it and not some state legislature. The exact same law applies to a person hurt working on a tie gang in Albany Georgia as it does to an engineer injured in Casper Wyoming. Hopefully, FELA will remain as a resource for injured railroad workers without any alterations.

By: Steve Gordon & Todd Elias of Gordon & Elias, L.L.P. www.gordon-elias.com

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