Every worker faces the possibility of sustaining injuries at work. However, the dangerous nature of the job and the work environment of railroad workers expose railroad workers to more potential hazards and greater risk. The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provides particular protections and rights for railroad workers. It also provides workers and their families with a legal system of recovery for injuries a railroad worker may suffer while working.

FELA requires railroad companies to provide appropriate training and supervision on safety, ensure compliance with safety rules and avoid placing unreasonable demands on employees. If an employer disregards FELA’s directives and it results in injuries to a worker, the worker can file a FELA claim against that employer. Successful FELA claims cover medical treatment, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

If you suffer on-the-job injuries as a railroad worker, you need a competent attorney to guide you through an overview of railroad worker injuries/ FELA, navigate the system and possibly work the case to your advantage. At The Workers Compensation Attorney Group, we have extensive experience in representing our clients within Orange County, CA in FELA claims.

Background Information on FELA

FELA was enacted by Congress in 1908 as a way of protecting railroad workers who were getting injured and dying at high rates. It is codified in Title 45 of the US Code and was specifically designed to alter how courts treat cases involving railroad workers’ injuries. Congress was convinced that forcing railroads to pay large amounts to injured workers would make the railroads improve on workplace safety. FELA is anchored on the power the federal government exercises over interstate trade. Before FELA’s inception, railroad workers had no legal remedy for their injuries.

Despite enacting this Act, railroad workers still face higher work-related risks than workers in other industries. Statistics show that railroad workers face twice the risk of being killed at work compared to the total rate of workers in the private sector. These statistics underscore the need for a system to protect and compensate railroad workers while they are working. Despite being altered over time, FELA still provides a unique solution for injured railroad workers.

Types of Railroad Injuries Covered by FELA

As a railroad worker, almost all injuries that you suffer on the job will be covered by FELA. These include injuries that you suffer even when your primary duties do not involve working in or around trains. FELA covers four main types of workplace injuries:

  • Injuries caused by trauma such as pulled muscles, broken bones and joint sprains
  • Injuries from repetitive motion such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel
  • Occupational sicknesses such as lung cancer, hearing loss, asbestosis, and others
  • Aggravated pre-existing conditions

FELA's Employer Requirements

Railroad employers and companies are required by the FELA to comply with federal standards set for your safety in the workplace. Employers who do not adhere to these minimum requirements are liable for injuries that you incur on the job. The standards are set out in:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) directives
  • The Safety Appliance Act
  • The Boiler Inspection Act

Under FELA, your employer and the railroad owe you several duties to ensure your safety. They have a duty to:

  1. Provide you with safe working conditions free of hazards
  • Your workplace should be reasonably safe and free of safety hazards. Your employer should provide and maintain appropriate tools, equipment, and safety devices.
  • Your employer must warn you of any workplace hazards and risky conditions, even when you should be aware of the danger yourself.
  • Your employer must conduct workplace inspections to ensure it is free of all hazards, known or unknown. Under FELA, your employer will be held culpable for injuries you incur due to defective equipment or a hazard that could have been discovered through proper inspection.
  1. Provide you with appropriate supervision and training, and enforce safety regulations
  • Your employer must provide you with relevant training to enable you to perform your assigned tasks safely.
  • Your work conditions and job activities should be supervised sufficiently to avoid injuries. The employer will be liable for injuries that occur due to inadequate supervision.
  • It is the role of your employer to ensure that safety regulations are followed. Other than complying with federal safety standards, railroad companies and employers must enforce compliance with their own safety rules and regulations. Failure to observe those rules could make them liable for your workplace injuries.
  1. Other duties
  • Take appropriate and practicable measures to protect you from intentional, harmful acts by third parties or other employees such as intentional torts and crimes.
  • Abstain from demanding for impracticable work quotas in terms of production and time.
  • Provide you with adequate assistance where the job assignment exceeds your physical abilities or limitations.

What Should You do if you are Injured?

As a railroad worker, you are legally protected by the FELA if you are injured while performing your duties at work. What occurs immediately after your injury is critical to your right to a claim. You need to take certain precautions and steps to protect your right to compensation from being compromised.

  1. After the Injury
    1. Fill in an employer’s injury report: If you are injured, report the injury immediately to your supervisor and fill in an injury report form, to the extent allowed by the injuries. The document may be required during your claim. Be as accurate and thorough as possible when providing the relevant information. Include all conditions, factors, and causes that may have been instrumental in the incident.
    2. Seek medical treatment: After an injury, your employer may ensure that you obtain medical attention and treatment especially if it is an emergency. After receiving initial medical care, you need to get additional treatment and independent medical evaluation from your doctor. Be as open and truthful as possible concerning any pain or difficulties that may have resulted from the incident. Keep copies of all bills, medical records and other relevant documents related to your medical treatment.
  1. Pursuing your Claim
    1. Your personal injury record: In addition to the report you make to your employer, you need a separate one for your personal use. This report will be useful for your attorney so you need to include a detailed description of both your injuries and the accident. In your own report, include a description of the extent and nature of your injuries as well as their impact on your personal life and your work. Add the names of any witnesses to the incident.
    2. Track time missed from work: Keep track of all the time you lose from work due to your injuries. It should include the work you missed on the day the accident occurred, work missed during your recovery and rehabilitation and work missed because of follow-up doctor’s appointments.
    3. Contact your workers' union: As required, inform your union representative about the occurrence and the injuries you suffered.

The FELA Claims Process

You can make your claim under FELA directly to the responsible railroad or employer, or bring a suit in either a state or federal court. A minimum of two parties will be involved in your claim, therefore, the events that occur and the timing may not be under your control. Below is a general outline of the steps your case is likely to follow in the legal process.

  1. Investigation and Negotiation for Settlement
  • After you are injured, either your employer, the railroad or both will require you to make a report about the incident. If possible, you should contact a competent FELA attorney immediately to safeguard your claim from being jeopardized in its initial stages.
  • The railroad will investigate the incident
  • Your attorney will independently investigate the extent of the injuries, what happened, and the party at fault.
  • The railroad, your attorney, you and other parties involved will discuss a settlement for your FELA claim.
  1. Filing a Complaint
  • Your attorney will file a civil action if there is no agreement on a settlement. It starts with a complaint together with a summons. A complaint is basically a legal document, prepared by your lawyer, and lays out your claim against the defendant. Defendants may include your employer, the railroad and sometimes an equipment manufacturer.
  • After filing and serving the defendant with the complaint, the defendant must respond within three weeks. The response includes the amount of liability the defendant accepts, what is contentious, the defendant's defenses and whether there is a claim against you or another party.
  • The parties are involved will by discovery, exchange information relevant to and documents about the legal action. Discovery is a process that can take either of three forms: written questions; production of documents; and depositions. These are formally sworn and transcribed statements taken in the presence of a court officer, usually a court reporter.
  1. Pre-Trial Activities
  • You may sometimes resolve your issues with the defendant voluntarily through a method of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) like a negotiated settlement or mediation. If you file a lawsuit on a FELA claim, the judge will often order you to hold compulsory settlement conferences or mediation to attempt and resolve the claim before going to trial.
  • Often, you, the defendant or even both parties will try to avoid a portion or the entire case by motion. You essentially present before the court the undisputed issues either because you agree to the facts or because applying the law to the facts will dictate the outcome.
  1. Trial
  • In a FELA case, you can have a jury if you go to trial because you cannot reach an agreement with the defendant, or if no motion is filed to dispose of the issue.
  • During the trial, the attorneys representing both sides will present their arguments and evidence and the jury or judge will determine the unsettled issues. Once a decision is reached, the judge will order judgment in favor of the winning party.
  • Any of the parties can go to a higher court to appeal the decision. However, it is rare for such a decision to be overturned by an appeals court. In addition, you cannot appeal settlements that you agree to with the defendant.

It is quite difficult to estimate the length of time the process will take. It can last a few months or several years. Generally, if the amount of money involved is not large and you can resolve most issues before trial, the process will be smooth and your FELA claim settled faster.

Prove of Liability

Workers' compensation laws operate under a no-fault principle. The worker does not need to prove their employer's fault. However, if you claim compensation under FELA, you will be required to prove that your injuries resulted from the defendant's negligence. The main aim is to demonstrate that the defendant failed to provide you with reasonably safe workplaces which resulted in your injuries.

The burden of proof required in FELA claims is less than that what is required in an ordinary claim of negligence such as a lawsuit for injuries you suffer in a motor vehicle accident. If you bring a FELA claim, you only need to demonstrate that the defendant was negligent in some way and that the negligence contributed to your injuries regardless of how small the contribution was. This burden of proof is referred to as "featherweight" and it gives you an advantage when you are searching for a legal solution to your injuries. As a requirement under FELA, the railroad on which you were injured must be involved in some level of interstate business. However, this requirement is almost always certain.

FELA provides a remedy for injured workers of railroad companies, a guideline for safety standards in railroad employment and the obligation of railroad companies to meet those standards. It also provides employers and railroad companies with a standard for uniform liability regarding employee safety and working conditions. If a railroad violates any of the safety standards and it causes you injuries, you only need to demonstrate the law that was violated and that you were injured. Your lawyer will involve expert consultants to prove noncompliance by the defendant and resolve complicated matters regarding the defendant’s liability.

Compensation Under FELA

The statute of limitations for FELA claims is three years. This means that to receive compensation, you must file your FELA claim within three years after the injury occurs. If you fail to bring a claim within that time, it will be barred and the court is likely to rule that you are not eligible to receive compensation.

For injuries caused by accidents, the three years start running on the day the injury occurs. However, injuries caused by exposure to toxins are not so easily dated. In such cases, the statute of limitations begins from when you become aware of the symptoms of the sickness or injury, and when you know or should have known that the sickness or injury was caused by your railroad job.

If successful, your FELA claim can provide you with more money than you would receive under workers’ compensation. You only need to prove employer negligence which may include:

  • Failing to provide adequate safety equipment or training for you as a worker
  • Setting unreasonable deadlines which force you to work hours and shifts that are unsafe
  • Demanding that you use unsafe tools

Under FELA, you may receive compensation for:

  • Past and future loss of wages
  • Past and future medical costs
  • Past and expected mental and emotional distress
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of capacity to earn
  • Permanent full or partial disability
  • Compensation to your spouse and children if your injuries are fatal. If you have no spouse or children, the compensation will be given to your surviving parents or close family members.

Comparative Negligence as a Defense

FELA provides you with many protections and establishing fault is easier than in other lawsuits. The main defense often used by defendants is your “comparative negligence”. The defendant will use this defense to demonstrate that your own negligence contributed to your injuries, to avoid accepting full liability.

After all the arguments in your FELA claim lawsuit are heard, the jury will determine who is legally responsible for your injuries. Usually, a percentage of fault will be apportioned to each party involved. The percentage will be proportional to the damages the court will award you. For example, if your employer is apportioned 75% of the blame and you are found responsible for 25% of your injuries, your employer is responsible for only 75% of your compensation. If your total damages amount to $100,000, you will only receive 75,000 as your compensation.

Differences Between FELA and Workers Compensation

In both workers compensation and FELA claims, the systems are structured to compensate you for injuries you suffer when working for your employer. However, that is the only similarity but there are several differences.

  1. Prove of negligence: In workers compensation claims, you are not required to prove negligence by your employer. You only need to demonstrate that you were injured within the scope of your employment. In FELA claims you must show that your employer was negligent and that your injury was caused by the negligence.
  2. Recoverable damages: Workers compensation claims limit your compensation to lost income, medical costs and any disability that occurs as a result of the injury, excluding pain and suffering. In FELA claims, recoverable damages are more extensive and include pain and suffering.
  3. Court jurisdiction: You can only bring workers compensation claims in the specific state’s industrial court or workers compensation court. Under FELA, you can bring a claim in any federal or state court.
  4. Amount of compensation: States limit the total amount you can receive under workers compensation as well as injuries to be compensated. FELA claims have no limitation on the total amount or the kind of injury for which you should receive compensation

Frequently Asked Questions About FELA Claims

I am a railroad worker, but I spend most of my time in the office. Can I claim compensation under FELA?

Almost all railroad company employees are protected under FELA for on-the-job injuries. This includes workers whose primary job assignments are not performed inside or around trains.

Is FELA simply workers compensation for railroad employees?

No. Workers compensation laws operate under a no-fault system. You do not have to prove employer negligence or that your employer was at fault. Under FELA, you will need to demonstrate that the defendant was negligent to some extent which caused your injuries.

An inspection by OSHA at my workplace found that the company violated safety regulations before my injury. Will it have any effect on my FELA claim?

If a railroad or employer violates workplace safety standards set out in any law or regulations, you and your attorney will find it easier to prove your case. You only need to demonstrate that your employer or the railroad contravened the specific law and that you were injured.

Does my FELA claim have to go for a trial in court?

Not necessarily. After investigations by all parties involved, the parties will discuss a settlement of your claim. Your case will only proceed to trial if you cannot reach an agreement with the defendant. Even when you file a lawsuit, the judge will order that you go through Alternative Dispute Resolution such as arbitration, mediation, or compulsory settlement conferences to try and resolve contentious issues before a trial.

Can another person bring a FELA claim even if they are not railroad workers?

Yes. If your injuries, unfortunately, result in death, your surviving spouse or children can bring a claim and receive compensation. If at the time of death you have no children or spouse, your compensation will go to your surviving parent or close family members.

Contact a Workers’ Compensation Attorney Near Me

If you suffer injuries as a railroad worker, you may not be aware of what to expect or whether your case is viable. Additionally, the FELA claim process is complex and full of frustrating setbacks. FELA claims are often resolved through settlement conferences and mediation and rarely do they end up in court for trial. Your first step should be contacting a competent attorney to represent you and protect your interests. Our skilled attorneys will evaluate the facts of your case before any hearing regarding your injuries are held. If you reside near Orange County, CA, call our Orange County workers compensation attorney at 562-485-9694, and we will vigorously protect your rights at every stage of your claim.