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What Railroad Workers Need to Know About FELA

Posted on: July 31, 2018

Amtrak Employee Killed in Maryland:

An Amtrak employee was killed in a horrific railroad crash that occurred around 9 a.m. on April 24, 2018, just north of the MARC station in Bowie, MD. According to a report from Baltimore’s CBS affiliate WJZ News Channel 13, the man was a safety lookout for a crew that was working on the track. The crew was working on a set of tracks in between the northbound and southbound rails, which were operational at the time of the incident. The accident occurred when a MARC train and Amtrak train approached the work site from opposite directions. A preliminary investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that the Amtrak train was the one that struck the railroad worker.

The family of the victim will likely seek compensation from Amtrak as the man’s employer, but this type of claim is different from a typical work-related accident. Generally, employees would file a claim for benefits from the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission. However, because this accident involves a rail carrier, the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) applies. Because FELA is different from workers’ compensation law and includes extremely complex legal concepts, you should seek advice from a Maryland personal injury attorney regarding a claim. Some background information on how these cases work may also be useful.

Overview of FELA

This federal law was enacted in the early 1900s, at a time when accidents in the railroad industry were common, causing deaths and injuries to workers. In fact, when the newly formed Interstate Commerce Commission issued its first report on railroad accidents in 1889, one out of every 375 railroad employees was killed and one out of every 35 had been injured during 1888.

Congress passed FELA to protect railroad workers and provide strong legal remedies in the event of an accident that causes injuries or death. As a secondary objective, lawmakers hoped that the potential of having to pay large settlements or jury awards would convince railroads to improve safety in the workplace.

Elements of a FELA Claim

At its core, a FELA claim is based upon negligence. The law requires a railroad employer to provide a reasonably safe work environment for its employees, and a failure to do so allows an injured victim to seek compensation. Therefore, to prevail in a FELA claim, you must prove:

  • You were injured in the scope of employment, which includes actual work and tasks that are necessary to perform actual work;
  • Your employment was to advance the railroad company’s interstate transportation of goods and passengers;
  • Your employer was negligent, in that it had a duty to protect workers against unreasonably hazardous conditions in the workplace and breached this duty;
  • That negligence played some part in causing your injuries.

Departures From Common Law Negligence

Though based upon negligence, there are some distinctions when comparing FELA to common law concepts. For one, element #4 above only requires an employee to show that the employer was negligent in some way. Any negligent act that relates to the injury or death, even the slightest, could be grounds for a FELA claim. Common law negligence is a more exacting standard, requiring a claimant to show that the accident would not have occurred “but for” the negligent act.

There are a few additional areas were FELA departs from common law negligence.

  • Contributory Negligence: FELA rejects the concept of contributory negligence, which bars any and all recovery if a victim’s own actions were a factor in an injury-causing accident. The law instead incorporates the principle of comparative negligence, which still allows a worker to recover compensation. The caveat is that the victim’s award may be reduced by the percentage of fault attributable to him or her. Examples might be if you suffered injuries while working in an unauthorized area, violated employer policies, or were not wearing proper safety gear required by your employer.
  • Assumption of Risk: In common law negligence, a defendant could escape liability by showing that the victim knew the risk of engaging in a dangerous activity and accepted the possibility of getting hurt. Under FELA, assumption of the risk is not a defense for a railroad employer.
  • Fellow Servant Rule: At one time, an employer could limit its own liability by showing that another worker caused injuries to the victim. FELA abolished this fellow servant rule, as do state workers’ compensation laws.

Other considerations to note in filing a FELA claim are:

  • The law includes its own statute of limitations, so you have three years from the date that you suffered injuries to file a lawsuit against a railroad employer.
  • FELA is the exclusive remedy for railroad employees who sustain on-the-job injuries. However, it is not necessary to show that you spend most of your job near railway tracks, on locomotives, or around railroad cars. You may be able to recover compensation even if you are an employee that works in an office, so long as your injuries occur while you are performing job-related tasks.
  • If successful in proving your FELA claim, you are not limited to the list of pre-determined benefits that apply in a typical workers’ compensation case. You can recover damages for:
    • Economic damages, including out-of-pocket medical expenses and lost wages; and,
    • Non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment and quality of life, and related losses.

Note that, in addition to lost wages, economic damages may include the value of the benefits you receive from a railroad employer. Medical, dental, and vision insurance can add up to a substantial amount over time.

Discuss FELA Claims with an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney

If you suffered injuries while working at your job as a railroad employee, FELA allows you to recover compensation from your employer. However, these matters are quite different from negligence cases, workers’ compensation claims, and other personal injury concepts. For more information on your rights and legal options, please contact the Baltimore office of Gordon Bob Katz Law. We are happy to answer your questions or schedule a consultation to discuss the details of your case.