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Overview of the Federal Employers Liability Act

The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) is a unique law designed to hold railroad companies liable for injuries and illnesses suffered by railroad employees if the railroads were negligent. The FELA was created in 1908 to help railroad workers to receive compensation. The Act offers compensation for the injured railroad worker's medical treatment, suffering and mental distress, wage losses, and future wage losses.

If a workplace injury or illness results in the death of a worker, the victim’s survivors could be able to receive compensation in the form of compensation for medical expenses, funeral expenses, and loss of income. This eligibility for compensation may be voided if there is contributory negligence if the worker contributes to the injury by doing negligent actions such as being intoxicated, fighting on the job, not following safety procedures, or using equipment improperly.

With FELA, it is necessary to prove negligence on the part of the railroad to receive compensation. You should contact an attorney if you have any questions of how worker’s compensation and FELA compensation works.

The FELA reduces the injured employee’s burden of proof by merely requiring that the employee prove that he sustained injuries, due in whole or in part, to the negligence of the railroad. Additionally, if the railroad has violated a safety statute or safety regulation, Congress has imposed absolute liability without the need to prove negligence.

As the result of both the pressure placed on the railroad industry by the FELA and technological improvements, the railroad industry has become a safer place to work. However, employment in the railroad industry remains dangerous and the FELA provides the only protection in the event a railroad employee is injured or killed.

Who is covered by the FELA?

The FELA covers most all railroad employees due to passage of the 1939 amendment to the FELA. The following provide a few examples of cases where the FELA was found applicable to an on-the-job injury:

Where a clerical worker was struck on the head by a piece of glass which fell from a railroad office building window down to the sidewalk where the worker was walking.

Where a trainman was put up in a motel overnight by the railroad and sustained injury after falling out of a defective bed.

Where a signalman slipped on ice in a railroad parking lot after completing his tour of duty. An injured employee need not be engaged in performances of his/her usual railroad duties to be protected by the FELA. If you are a railroad worker injured as the result of any work related activity, you may come within the protection of the FELA.

How do I exercise my FELA rights?

Immediately after sustaining a work related injury, the injured employee should take the following steps:

  • 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, which may have a legal significance you do not understand.
  • Speak to a North Carolina railroad injury lawyer familiar with the FELA as soon as possible. Do not sign any papers or make any additional statements to the railroad, including the claim agents, before seeing a lawyer.
  • See a doctor as soon as possible. You need not obtain treatment from a doctor recommended by the railroad. See a doctor you have confidence in. Inform all treating doctors of the nature and extent of your complaints. Provide all doctors with a full history of prior injuries. Obtain a note disqualifying you from your employment, if appropriate, which can be shown to your supervisor. Remain out of work until you are physically capable of safely returning to work without risking aggravation of your injuries.
  • Promptly file all applications to obtain Railroad Retirement Board disability benefits and any supplemental disability benefits provided in your collectively bargained agreement.
  • 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.
  • Have photographs taken of visible injuries before they heal.
  • Keep records of: your lost earnings; out-of-pocket expenses; nature and extent of your pain and discomfort.

What damages may I recover?

The damages that may be recovered under the FELA vary from case to case. The categories of potential damages that may be recovered include the following:

  • Wage Loss. (Past and Future)
  • Out-of-Pocket expenses.
  • Future fringe benefits.
  • Pain and Suffering. (Past and Future)
  • Medical expenses. (Past and Future)
  • The value of any lost limb or organ.

What is my FELA claim worth?

How much a case is worth is dependent on many factors:

  • The nature and severity of the injury.
  • Whether some or all of your injuries are permanent.
  • The extent to which your injuries are disabling you from work.
  • Whether you will be able to return to your occupation.
  • How much money you have lost or will lose in the future due to the injury.
  • The degree of pain and suffering you have had and will have in the future.
  • Whether you suffered any prior related injuries or had any pre-existing conditions, which play a role in your current condition.
  • The degree of negligence on the part of the railroad which was a cause of your injury.

How long will it take to process my FELA claims?

The length of time that is required to process a FELA claim varies. In some cases it may be prudent to commence a lawsuit in a federal court, while in another area, a quicker result may be obtained in the local court. Your attorney will be in a position to know what is appropriate in any given case.

The length of time required to process a FELA claim might also be affected by the nature of your injury. A serious back injury resulting in surgery obviously requires more time to determine the degree of permanency than a fractured finger. A claim should never be settled or brought to trial before the parties are in a position to properly evaluate the severity and permanency of your injuries.

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