Railroad Worker Injuries:  The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA)

Feb 12 2021

If you have been injured on the job while working for Metro North, Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad, PATH, or New Jersey Transit, you may be surprised to learn that your workplace injury is not covered by workers’ compensation insurance.  Instead, railroad workers have the right to sue their employer in court for injuries that were, even to the slightest extent, the fault of the railroad.  This right to sue, secured for you by the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), places you in a unique position when compared to employees injured in other work settings.

For other workers, a workers’ compensation claim can be beneficial because there is no need to prove the employer was negligent or at fault for the injury.  So long as the injury occurred while at work, the employee is covered.  However, it is also true that the workers’ compensation forum can present frustrating obstacles to obtaining necessary medical care, and it often undervalues an employee’s permanent injuries.

Under FELA, an injured railroad worker has the right to bring his claim in court and, if necessary, have a jury decide the value of his injuries.  However, FELA does require the injured railroad worker to prove the railroad was negligent and that the negligence caused the injury.  In some ways, the FELA claim is similar to the type of claim an injured motorist might bring against the other driver who caused a traffic accident.  The mere fact of an injury is not enough; like the injured motorist, the railroad worker has to satisfy the burden of proof.  But, under FELA it is a low burden of proof.  The railroader need only prove to the jury that his employer’s negligence played any part, even the slightest, in causing the injury for which damages are sought.  The United States Supreme Court has declared that the causation requirement applicable to FELA is “as broad as could be framed.”  So, even if there were other causes which contributed to the injury (including your own mistake), those other causes do not prevent a finding for the railroader, so long as the railroad’s negligence played any part in causing the injury.

A railroad’s negligence can include both its actions and its failures to act.  Like any employer, a railroad is liable for the actions and omissions of its employees.  Therefore, a railroad is most often found to be negligent because of the mistakes of one of its employees.  This includes both union employees and management employees.  A railroad can be responsible for your injuries if it:

  • Failed to provide a reasonably safe workspace (for example, by requiring you to work in environments with slipping and tripping hazards);
  • Failed to provide sufficient manpower (for example, by requiring one worker to lift a heavy load that should have been handled by many others);
  • Failed to properly or sufficiently train new employees; or
  • Failed to provide adequately safe tools (for example, requiring a worker to use a power tool that malfunctions and injures the worker).

A railroad may also be negligent if it subjects its workers to conditions that cause repetitive stress injuries or exposes its workers to environmental conditions that cause illness.

Even if the injury was partially the fault of the injured worker, a railroad likely remains responsible under FELA for its contribution to the injury.  The question to be answered is what percentage of the fault is attributed to the injured worker and what percentage of fault is attributable to the railroad.  If a jury ultimately determines the injured worker was X% responsible for his own injury, then the jury’s dollar award will be reduced by that percentage amount only.  The railroad remains responsible for the remainder.

Under FELA a railroad is responsible for all of the damages it has caused.  A successful FELA claim can result in a recovery that compensates the railroad worker for:

  • Past lost wages;
  • Future lost earning capacity;
  • Physical pain and suffering;
  • Emotional pain and suffering; and
  • Permanent disability, including permanent partial disability.

It is imperative for injured railroad workers to seek medical care for all of their physical and emotional (mental health) injuries.  Obviously, it is necessary for healing and health.  However, obtaining medical care also creates a record of the extent of the injury, the care required for healing, and the prognosis for the future.  Most of the time, a railroader’s health insurance will remain in place even when they are out of work after injury.  So, be a “good patient,” and go see the doctor.

If you were injured on the railroad, give us a call as soon as you can.

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About the Author

Stephen Fitzgerald

Advocating for Employees
since 1977

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