Federal Employers Liability Act and Workers' Compensation Differ | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Both workers’ compensation and the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provide financial protections for people who suffer work-related injuries, develop occupational illnesses or die in workplace accidents. The similarities pretty much end there.

Still, having spent four decades advising and representing people who have FELA claims, I find even myself sometimes calling FELA “workers’ comp for railroad employees.” That brief description captures the broadest sense of what FELA is, but it completely obscures and confuses how FELA works.

Each year, a too-large share of the thousands of current and former railroad employees who have grounds to file FELA claims do not do so simply because they do not understand the law or their rights under it. This brief rundown of how FELA differs from workers’ compensation will not answer every question, but it is essential for anyone who does or has worked a railroad job to understand the differences.

Workers’ Comp Does Not Cover the Vast Majority of Railroad Employees

States operate workers’ comp programs. Freight and passenger railroads that operated across state lines (think Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the companies that preceded them) were specifically exempted from workers’ comp programs by state legislatures who only wanted to deal with local claims. Consequently, the federal government enacted FELA to ensure railroad employees could also have access to compensation after getting injured or falling ill on the job.



FELA Covers On-the-Job Injuries, Deaths From Workplace Accidents and Occupational Illnesses

Claimants—the people who file claims—generally have three years from the date on which an injury happened, a disease was diagnosed or symptoms of an occupational illness became disabling to file a FELA claim. A family member can file a claim on behalf of a deceased or severely disabled railroad worker.

Importantly, retired employees can file FELA claims. Also, a FELA claim cannot be denied solely on the grounds that the claimant did not file an accident or incident report at the time of an injury or an exposure to a toxic substance.

FELA Claims Are Essentially Lawsuits

Claimants must officially notify the railroad corporation individually of the intent to file a FELA claim. Doing this requires drawing up legal papers. The company will also have its own paperwork, and it is practically guaranteed to get its own attorneys involved quickly.

A state or federal court can handle a FELA case. Issues that are not settled by mutual agreement between the railroad company and the claimant go to trial. Usually, a jury is asked to decide whether the claimant receives compensation.

Succeeding With a FELA Claim Requires Proving Negligence

Workers’ comp is a no-fault system. As long as a person was hurt or fell ill while they were sober, not breaking a law and engaged in job-related tasks, they can be approved to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

A FELA claimant, on the other hand, must present convincing evidence that the railroad or one of its employees was negligent and that the negligence led to the claimant’s injury, death or illness. Showing that a violation of an applicable law like the Safety Appliance Act or Locomotive Inspection Act is a principal way of showing negligence.

A FELA claimant does not need to show that the railroad or its employee was 100 percent at fault. The law permits a finding of comparative negligence, but such a finding will result in the claimant having their settlement or court award lowered by the percentage that they were to blame.

FELA Claims Can Include Requests for Compensation for Pain and Suffering

Workers’ comp only covers economic losses. This means that the program pays approved medical and therapy bills. It will also cover a percentage of the wages an injured or ill worker loses while they are off the job.

A FELA claimant can request compensation for economic and noneconomic losses. In addition to pain and suffering, noneconomic losses include, but are not limited to, loss of companionship and diminished enjoyment of life. In extraordinary circumstances, a FELA claimant can also request punitive damages.