Most workers don’t spend much time thinking about what would happen if they were to become injured on the job -- that is, until they actually suffer an injury. But here is something to think about: almost every private employee in the United States can collect workers’ compensation for an on-the-job injury, but employees of interstate railroad companies cannot.
Why is that? Does it give injured railroad workers an advantage or disadvantage? What does an injured employee have to prove in order to force a railroad to compensate the employee for the injury?
In the sections that follow, we will answer those questions by providing a brief history of the federal law protecting injured railroad employees, identifying the effects of that law, and describing how an injured railroad employee can use it to win a lawsuit.
Brief History of FELA
Courts treat injuries to railroad workers differently than injuries to any other people because Congress passed a law in 1908 designed specifically to alter the way that courts treated such cases. Between 1889 and 1920, railroad use in the United States expanded six-fold. During this period, it was considered so dangerous to be a railroad worker that President Harrison compared the dangers to those faced by a soldier during war.
The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) was designed to increase workplace safety by providing strong legal remedies to injured railroad employees. Congress believed that if railroads were forced to consistently pay large awards to injured employees, they would take whatever measures necessary to improve the safety of the workplace and decrease workers’ injuries.
FELA, though it has been altered over time, still provides the exclusive remedy for injured employees of interstate railroad companies (meaning railroads that operate across more than one state).
How is FELA Different?
If a factory worker is injured at work, the worker will probably be able to collect workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, meaning that injured employees need not prove that the employer was negligent in order to recover for injuries. But, the workers' compensation system also may limit the amount that employees can recover for injuries.
FELA places almost no financial limits on recoveries, but FELA also does not hold railroads liable for all injuries to employees. An employee must prove that the railroad’s negligence caused the employee’s injuries. But the law does favor employees. FELA states that an employer will be liable if employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought.
In other words, a worker need not show that the railroad was primarily responsible for the injury. In order to recover, the worker must show only that the railroad’s negligence played at least a small part in causing the injury.
What Must an Injured Railroad Worker Prove to Win a Lawsuit?
An injured worker must prove three things to win a lawsuit under FELA:
- that FELA applies
- that the railroad was negligent, and
- that the negligence caused harm.
When Does FELA Apply?
FELA applies to any lawsuit by an employee of a railroad engaged in interstate commerce for an injury that occurred at work.
The interstate commerce part is pretty insignificant. Almost all railroads are engaged in interstate commerce in some way. But this could exempt some small commuter railway operations that are purely local.
The requirement that the injury occurs at work is also broadly interpreted. For example, imagine a railroad worker spends twenty years walking on oversized ballast. One morning, the worker wakes up at home with severe back pain. A doctor informs the worker that walking on the oversized ballast for so long gradually did damage to the back and spine, which finally gave out, and the worker will likely have to have surgery and may permanently suffer pain.
This would count as an injury that occurred at work even though the employee first experienced pain while at home. The injury was still caused by an at work activity.
When is a Railroad Negligent?
Negligence is basically any failure to provide a reasonably safe workplace. The failure does not have to be attributed to management. For example, if a crane operator makes a mistake, striking a worker with a boom, the negligence of the crane operator can be attributed to the railroad.
The types of mistakes that can constitute negligence are infinite, but here are a few common examples:
- failing to provide proper safety training to employees
- failing to provide adequate safety equipment
- requiring workers to work long hours
- requiring workers to work under time pressure, or
- failing to provide adequate supervision for employees.
Did the Negligence Really Cause the Harm?
Imagine a worker’s job is to drive a lift truck at a rail yard. The worker is instructed not to exceed 10 mph with the lift truck, but is not instructed as to the potential hazards that might arise by driving faster. One day, the worker is trying to meet a tight schedule and drives the truck at 20 mph in order to meet that schedule. The lift truck flips while cornering, landing on the worker and paralyzing her.
The case goes to a jury. The worker proves that the railroad should have instructed her on the potential consequences of driving a lift truck too quickly. The jury concludes that the accident was 90% the fault of the employee and 10% the fault of the railroad.
In this scenario, even though the accident was largely the worker’s fault, she can still recover something from the railroad. FELA allows a recovery if the railroad’s negligence contributes even in a slight way to the worker’s injury.
In short, if any portion of the worker’s injury can be attributed to the railroad, the worker can probably obtain at least some compensation.