Federal Employers Liability Act Overview | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) allows railroad workers who suffer on-the-job injuries or develop occupational illnesses to hold their negligent employers accountable for paying medical bills and providing compensation for disabilities. It is often characterized as workers’ compensation for railroaders, but the system established by FELA operates much differently from workers’ comp.

Here, my Virginia-based FELA law firm colleagues and I outline the provisions and procedures of this essential safeguard for railroad workers. We understand that each reader’s situation will be unique, and we could never address every possible scenario in a brief web article. If you believe the railroad company that currently or previously employed you failed to meet its legal duty to protect you from getting hurt or contracting a debilitating disease such as COPD or mesothelioma, please contact us. We cannot take every case, but we offer free consultations to potential clients. We may also be able to make a referral to another law firm.

What the FELA Is and What the Law Does

The Federal Employers Liability Act took effect in 1908. Individual states had already started setting up workers’ comp programs by that time, but state legislatures explicitly excluded claims from employees engaged in interstate commerce. That exclusion precisely targeted railroaders, so the U.S. Congress passed the FELA.

The act makes it possible for injured or ill railroaders to file civil lawsuits in order to receive compensation for, among other things, past and future medical treatments, physical suffering and emotional distress, lost wages and loss of future earnings. Current and retired railroad employees can file FELA claims. A family member of a railroad worker who dies in an on-the-job accident or who succumbs to an occupational illness also has rights to sue under the FELA.

Succeeding with a claim requires presenting evidence that the defendant company or its managers acted negligently. The surest way to prove negligence in a FELA lawsuit is to document a violation of a worker safety law or regulation. Such a provable violation saddles the railroad company with absolute liability, leaving the employee and their attorney with no other obligation to show negligence.



Importantly, FELA lawsuits and settlements or trial awards are decided according the rule of comparative negligence. A worker can be partially at fault for an accident or exposure to toxic materials but still receive compensation as long as they are not determined to be more than 50 percent at fault. Any settlement or judgment will, however, be reduced by the percentage of fault assigned to the employee.

More than a century of FELA litigation has pushed railroad companies to regularly adopt and deploy safer equipment and work practices. Despite these technological and procedural advances, trains, tracks, rail yards and machine shops remain among the most dangerous workplaces.

Who Is Covered by the FELA?

Practically every person who works for a railroad company that operates trains which cross state lines, handles freight or transports passengers who cross state lines, or conducts financial transactions across state lines is covered by the FELA. This group includes office workers, contractors and temps in addition to the employees who are intuitively covered, such as engineers, conductors, brakemen and machinists.

The definitions of work-related injury or illness are also expansive. Examples of cases that have been brought successfully under the FELA include

  • A clerical worker who was struck in the head by a piece of glass that fell from a rail company office building,
  • A trainman who fell out of defective bed while staying in a motel as his train was en route but out of service, and
  • A signalman who slipped on ice in the company parking lot after completing his tour.

How You Exercise Your Rights Under the FELA

After an On-the-Job Injury

Immediately after sustaining a work-related injury,

  • Seek medical care. You do not need not obtain treatment from a doctor recommended by the railroad. See a doctor you trust.
  • Have photographs taken of visible injuries before they heal.
  • Obtain a note disqualifying you from work, if appropriate, and share that note with your supervisor.
  • Comply with doctors’ orders and fill all prescriptions.
  • Keep appointments with specialists and do recommended follow-up care. Inform all the doctors who treat you of the nature and extent of your complaints. Provide each doctor with a full history of your prior injuries.
  • Remain out of work until you are cleared by your treating physician to resume your duties safely and without risking aggravation of your injuries.
  • Make certain your immediate superior has made a report of your injury. It should be short and to the point. Do not let anyone put words in your mouth. Phrases inserted into the incident report may have legal significance you do not understand.
  • Get the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all crewmembers and witnesses to your accident.
  • Have photographs taken of the locations or machinery involved in your accident as soon as possible.
  • Promptly file all applications to obtain Railroad Retirement Board disability benefits and any supplemental disability benefits provided in your collective bargaining agreement.
  • Keep records of your lost earnings and out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Make written notes describing the nature and extent of your pain and discomfort.
  • Speak with an experienced railroad injury lawyer who is familiar with the FELA as soon as possible.
  • Do not sign any papers or make any additional statements to the railroad or claim agents before consulting with a lawyer.

After Diagnosis of an Occupational Illness

FELA claims arising from cancer, mesothelioma or some other chronic, potentially fatal disease do not require you to file an incident or accident report. You will, however, need extensive medical documentation.

You will also likely need testimony from health and workplace safety experts. Partnering with an experienced FELA attorney will make it easier to put together a strong case for compensation.

Meeting the Statute of Limitations

Injury and wrongful death claims must be filed within three years of the day on which the workplace accident occurred. Occupational illness claims under the FELA are also subject to a three-year statute of limitations, but the clock starts clicking on either the day that a definitive diagnosis is made or on the day when symptoms became disabling.

Which Damages Can Be Recovered Via a FELA Lawsuit?

Claims can be settled before going to trial. In either circumstance, the injured or ill railroad employee can ask to be compensated for

  • Wages lost in the past and the future;
  • Future fringe benefits;
  • Medical expenses, including costs for ongoing treatment and therapy;
  • The value of a lost limb or organ;
  • Out-of-pocket expenses; and
  • Pain and suffering to date and in the future.

A family member who brings a wrongful death claim can also ask to be reimbursed for funeral expenses.

What Is a FELA Claim Worth?

This depends on several factors, including

  • The nature and severity of the injury or illness,
  • The severity of the railroad worker’s pain and suffering,
  • Whether the injury or illness is permanent or chronic,
  • The extent to which the injury or illness is disabling,
  • How much money the injury or illness has and will cost the railroad worker,
  • Whether the injury or illness is new or an exacerbation of a preexisting condition, and
  • The degree of negligence on the part of the railroad company or its managers.

How Long Does a FELA Lawsuit Take?

This also depends on many of the factors that determine the amount of a settlement or trial award. Some cases conclude quickly because the railroad company does not contest liability and offers a settlement that the worker believes to be fair and just. Other cases drag on for years.

The most important thing for a railroad worker to understand is that they should not accept a settlement until they are sure that their condition has been properly evaluated and their financial needs have been fully addressed. A FELA attorney who has advised and represented many other railroaders will be able to offer insights on these issues.