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Understanding the Difference Between the Federal Employers Liability Act and Workers' Compensation

Protection against injury for railroad employees is provided under a separate set of regulations, which is different from workers’ compensation. When a railroad worker gets injured because of the negligence of the railroad company, the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) will be used to provide compensation.

Although injuries and fatalities among railroad workers run into the thousands every year, many employees are unclear about how to obtain compensation from their employer. Railroad workers often entangle FELA and Workers’ Compensation, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to recovering a claim for injuries.

Key Distinctions Between Workers’ Comp and FELA

The US Congress enacted FELA more than a century ago for the benefit of railroad employees and their families in the event of an injury, disability, or death on the job. FELA has a few important differences from workers’ compensation.  

Claim Filing

Federal Employers’ Liability Act allows railroad workers to file their claim either in the federal or state court. The injured worker will be entitled to a jury trial. On the other hand, in case worker’s compensation, the claim must be filed with the employer’s insurance provider. Workers’ comp also requires the employee to waive the right to file a lawsuit in return for compensation based on a pre-determined schedule.

Fault-Based Liability

Workers’ Compensation system does not require an injured worker to prove that their injury occurred because of the employer’s negligence. Workers can claim compensation for their medical costs as well as loss of wages without having to prove fault.

However, when you file a claim for compensation under FELA, you will be required to prove that the at-fault party (such as the railroad company, its employees, or a third party such as an equipment maker) caused your injuries due to their negligence. This principle behind FELA claims is that the victim must show that the defendant somehow failed to ensure their reasonable workplace safety, which led to their injury.


Benefits under workers’ compensation are capped by a statutory limit that is decided by the state. The compensation is usually restricted to only economic damages (medical bills and loss of income), and the workers may not claim non-economic damages (pain and suffering, loss of consortium etc).

However, an injured worker under FELA is eligible to receive both economic and non-economic damages, including compensation for their pain and suffering and loss of companionship and enjoyment of life. In exceptional situations, the judge or jury may also award punitive damages to the victim.

Comparative Negligence

In workers’ compensation cases, the issue of negligence does not arise because it is a “no fault” claim. But FELA makes use of the comparative negligence legal doctrine while determining the amount of compensation. In these cases, the jury will determine the share of fault that can be attributed to each liable party, and the injured worker will receive a compensation in proportion to the fault of the defendants.

For example, if the court finds that the victim is partly to blame for their own injuries (say, to the extent of 40 percent), they would only be awarded compensation to the extent of 60 percent of the total economic and non-economic damages they may have suffered in the accident. In addition to bodily injuries, FELA also covers injuries occurring due to causes such as cumulative trauma, repetitive stress, and asbestos exposure. 

Consult with a Skilled FELA Attorney Today

FELA and workers’ compensation claims are different from each other, but FELA claims can often be more complex. The liability standards and procedural rules applicable to these cases differs from those that may apply to workers’ comp and traditional personal injury cases.

Injured railroad workers and their families should speak to knowledgeable FELA attorneys at Shapiro & Appleton for legal counsel. Call us at 800-752-0042 to schedule a consultation.



Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia
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