FELA Protection for Railroad Workers: A Brief History

The Federal Employers' Liability Act, or FELA, provides benefits and protections to railroad workers injured on the job. That may sound like workers' compensation to some, but it's actually a distinct area of tort law — and workers who sustain occupational injuries in the field of rail transportation need attorneys who specialize in FELA to protect their legal rights.   

The difference between workers' comp and the FELA goes back to the early days of the railroad industry. In fact, the FELA predates the first state workers' compensation law, which was passed in 1911. Congress had already passed the federal law in support of railroad workers in 1908. However, the bill didn't get through without a struggle, and, unfortunately, attacks on the FELA continue today.  

What is FELA and How Did It Begin?

The FELA is a federal law enacted in 1908 to protect railroad workers who were injured on the job. Under the FELA, if an injured railroader can prove that the railroad was at least partially negligent in causing the injury, then they are entitled to recover for their damages. At the time the FELA was enacted, there was no remedy in place for workers who were injured on the railroad.

By the second half of the 19th century, Americans understood how dangerous it was to work on the ever-expanding railways of the United States. In 1889, a newly minted Interstate Commerce Commission began compiling statistics on occupational injuries on the rails. The ICC report showed that, in the previous year, one in every 35 railroad employees was injured. One of every 357 workers was killed.

(The ICC itself continued regulating rail and road travel until 1995, when it was abolished, and its duties folded into those of the National Surface Transportation Board.)

Around the turn of the century, two things were clear: Railroad owners needed an incentive to focus on safety at their work sites, and injured railroad workers needed compensation and protection. In 1906, Congress acted, passing the first version of the Federal Employers' Liability Act. This law allowed railway workers to seek damages according to the degree of their employers' negligence.

Unfortunately, the first version of the law was flawed. The Supreme Court quickly struck it down on a technicality. Still, Congress was adamant about protecting rail workers. They passed a new version in 1908, which remains in place to this day.

FELA for Railroad Injuries Today

Today, the FELA continues to provide protections to railroad workers injured on the job. It does so, however, in a very different way than traditional state-based workers' compensation. Unlike the FELA, workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, meaning an employee who is injured at work can recover damages, regardless of who is at fault for the injury. In a workers’ compensation case, there is no requirement that the employee prove that his or her employer was negligent. As long as the employee was injured during the course and scope of their employment, they can generally recover under workers’ compensation. However, there is a trade off: in a workers’ compensation case an employee is limited in the types of damages that they can recover and there is no right to a jury trial.

Under the FELA, however, an injured employee must prove negligence or that his or her employer failed to provide a reasonably safe workplace. If a railroad worker is injured entirely because of their own fault, they cannot recover anything, no matter how serious the injury is. This places an additional burden on the injured railroad worker to prove that their work place was unsafe and that the railroad was responsible for the unsafe condition. Unlike state workers' compensation rules, however, the FELA guarantees an injured worker the right to a jury trial and does not place limits on the value of damages. Moreover, the FELA allows injured workers to file suit in either state or federal court, which is not allowed for workers’ compensation claims. Ultimately, this means that an injured employee will be able to recover more money in a case filed under the FELA than they ever would as a traditional workers’ compensation case.

Meanwhile, railway corporate interests continue to challenge the FELA in court, and powerful railroad lobbyists urge Congress to repeal the law. As of this writing, these forces remain unsuccessful — which means that FELA is still here to support railroad workers who are injured through an employer's negligence.  

For more information, or for a free consultation to determine whether FELA applies in a case involving a workplace injury, call Wilkins Schneller Law at 314-588-8000.