Most workers who are injured on the job have the option to file claims with workers' compensation that will pay some or all the damages and losses associated with the injury, regardless of who is liable for the accident that caused it. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, this is not true for people who work for railroad companies. Here's more information about this issue and your option for recovering damages if you're hurt on your railroad job.
Workers' Comp Is Not a Remedy Available to Railroad Workers
Railroad work is dangerous. Almost 2 out of every 100 workers were injured in 2011, and there were 22 fatalities that year. When the railroad industry first began expanding, however, the incidence of railroad injuries and deaths among workers was much higher. So high, in fact, the president of the United States and Congress enacted the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) in 1906 to provide workers with the ability to sue railroad companies for injuries directly.
The idea behind the passing of the law was to incentivize railroad companies into enacting safety measures to protect workers by putting the companies at risk of being hit with large-dollar lawsuits from injured workers. The law worked so well, it was adopted as the sole remedy for railroad employees. Although efforts have been made over the years to abolish the law and switch railroad employees to workers' compensation, all bills to that effect have so far been defeated.
FELA vs. Workers' Comp
FELA essentially allows railroad workers to file personal injury lawsuits against their employers. Conversely, workers' compensation prohibits injured employees from suing their employers directly. In exchange, however, the insurance provider pays the employees' claims regardless of who is liable for the accident that lead to the injury. This means that even if the employee was responsible for the accident, workers' comp will pay the person's medical bills and other covered losses.
However, workers' compensation often limits the amount of money an employee can collect. Since railroad workers essentially sue their employers using personal injury statutes, they have the ability to collect bigger monetary awards from their employers. To prevail in court, however, they must prove their injuries were the result of negligence on their employers' part.
This isn't as challenging as one would think. FELA uses the comparative negligence model for assessing liability, which means the employer can still be made to pay damages even if the court finds it was only 1 percent liable for the accident. The amount of money awarded to the plaintiff may be reduced by the amount of liability placed on the employee, however. For example, if the employee is found to be 60 percent liable, he or she would only get 40 percent of the financial compensation owed.
Other Challenges to Winning a FELA Lawsuit
In addition to establishing negligence on the employer's part, the plaintiff in a FELA suit must prove two other elements:
- FELA applies to the employer
- The employer's negligence caused harm
FELA only applies to interstate railroad companies, i.e., companies that operate railroads that cross state lines. This generally isn't an issue because the vast majority of railroad companies fall in this category. However, it may be a problem for people who work for small companies that only operate intrastate, such as those that lay down tracks for local subway stations. In this case, workers' compensation may be the exclusive remedy for these employees.
Although a railroad company may have behaved negligently, you must connect the employer's negligence to the injury. For instance, say a railroad company cuts corners and uses cheap bolts. A train derails and injures employees due to conductor error. Even though the employer didn't adhere to safety standards, the company's negligence didn't cause or contribute to the accident. Therefore, an employee in this case may have difficultly holding the company liable for their injuries.
For more information on how FELA can help you collect compensation for a railroad injury or assistance with a case, contact a personal injury attorney from a firm like Whiting, Hagg, Hagg, Dorsey & Hagg.