What Is the Statute of Limitations for Filing a Claim Under the Federal Employers Liability Act? | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Bill Morrow via Flickr -- https://www.flickr.com/photos/billmorrow/4563117513This question has a simple answer that hides a lot of complexity.

Under the law that most people refer to as FELA, an injury or wrongful death claim arising from a railroad work-related accident must be filed within 3 years of the incident.

Occupational illness disease claims must be filed within 3 years of when it begins to run when a current or retired employee knew or should have known that he or she suffered from an illness caused by some type of job-related exposure. Mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and emphysema/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are common among retired railroad workers.


The Federal Employers Liability Act assigns strict liability to railroad corporations whose employees get hurt, die or fall ill due to corporate negligence. Importantly, the law applies to all railroad workers, from office clerks to conductors and engineers. A company like Amtrak, CSX or Norfolk Southern will be found negligent when it fails to comply with safety laws and regulations, or when its managers fail to properly train, equip and equip workers.

Exactly when the clock starts ticking on a FELA claim is often disputed. The railroad being asked to pay compensation and other monetary damages uses this tactic because it can get a case dismissed simply by showing its current or former employee waited too long to take legal action. Filing an incident report as soon as possible following an on-the-job injury will firmly establish the date of the accident.

Incident reports are not required for wrongful death or occupational disease claims under FELA. Such reports would be impossible given the circumstances. What does matter, then, are death certificates and medical records. The take-home lesson is that any current or retired railroad workers who believes he or she may have grounds for filing a FELA claim should hold on to each form and bill they think may relate to their case in any way.

Further, while the most obvious beginning point for the statute of limitations on an occupational disease claim is when a doctor diagnoses the disease. Some courts, however, have held that employees have a duty to exercise reasonable care to investigate whether they suffer from an occupationally related illness.

This means that employees who develop symptoms that may be related to an occupational exposure, they should investigate the cause of their symptoms by consulting a physician. Employees who fail to consult a physician after experiencing suspect symptoms may see a court rule that the statute of limitations of their occupational illness claim began running when they first suspected they suffered from the disease.

Any railroad employee who does consult a physician about a possible occupational illness should be prepared to describe past exposures to toxic substances like asbestos, diesel exhaust fumes, radioactive materials and industrial chemicals. Discussing the frequency, duration and intensity of exposures with the doctor also matters.

If the physician receives all this information and does not relate the railroad employee’s symptoms to his or her work-related exposures, a statute of limitations will probably not begin to run. If, however, the doctor confirms that employee suffers from an occupational illness, he or she can begin receiving medical treatment to address the symptoms and consult with an attorney to investigate whether grounds for filing a claim exists.

Even beyond establishing a timeline, incident reports, bills and official documents make it easier to prove that a preventable injury, death or illness occurred. Presenting that proof enables the railroad worker or surviving family members to recover past and future medical expenses, lost wages, lost future earnings, disability compensation, compensation for pain and suffering, and, if warranted, compensation for a disfigurement or deformity.

As Virginia-based FELA attorneys, we know the importance of quickly filing claims against negligent railroads. Exceeding the statute of limitations adds financial struggles to physical and emotional suffering.