FELA Versus Workers’ Compensation: What is the Difference?

March 31, 2023 @ 7:11 pm

The average person who gets hurt on the job is covered by workers’ compensation. However, if you’re a railroad worker, that’s not the case. Instead, if you work for a rail company and get hurt on the job, FELA comes into play. That means that you have a lot more on the line. You will have to prove that you deserve compensation because the railroad did something wrong. That’s exactly why you need to understand the critical differences between workers’ compensation and FELA.

What Is FELA?

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act—more commonly known as FELA—is a law that Congress passed in 1908 to give railroad workers who get hurt on the job the ability to sue their employer for negligence and have their personal injury case heard by a jury and decided in a court of law.

It was a legislative response to the railroad industry’s dramatic expansion in the late 19th century and the resulting number of railroad workers who were seriously injured on the job. The overwhelming numbers of men who were maimed, crushed, fatally harmed or otherwise unable to work following incidents—and the number of families who depended upon them—prompted the act’s creation. The intent was twofold.

  • The railroads became liable for negligence, essentially forcing them to provide safer work environments and create standardized safety rules and protocols to protect workers.
  • Railroad workers and their families gained the means to obtain full compensation for their injuries if the railroad failed to fulfill its duty to provide a safe workplace.

In the century since the act’s creation, numerous court cases have challenged its interpretation and nuances, but the law still stands. Railroads have a duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work, and their workers have the legal ability to sue if they’re injured due to their employer’s negligence.

What the Federal Employers’ Liability Act Says

FELA states that any “common carrier by railroad” engaging in interstate or foreign commerce “shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier in such commerce” due to the negligence of the company’s personnel or negligence affecting company equipment or the workplace. It goes on to specify that if a worker is killed or dies from their injuries, the railroad is liable for the death, with damages due to the worker’s next of kin who is dependent upon the worker.

Within that language are key elements that not only set the bar for railroad workers or their survivors being able to collect damages but also set FELA cases apart from regular workers’ compensation claims. More, the law’s intent is so steadfast that it actively voids any attempt by a railroad to exempt itself from FELA liability.

Differences Between FELA and Workers’ Compensation

Four key differences between workers’ compensation and FELA not only highlight how the two compare but also demonstrate why entrusting the process of recovering damages for an injury to an attorney experienced in applying FELA to railroad accidents as soon as possible is a sound idea.

Basis of a Claim

Under workers’ compensation, workers can file a claim any time they are injured—regardless of circumstances. As long as the employee is hurt while on the clock, they can file a workers’ compensation claim regardless of who was at fault for the injury.

Under FELA, any worker who is employed by or supports a carrier involved in interstate or foreign commerce has a right to damages and protections under FELA, provided certain conditions are met. Primary among them, FELA mandates that the carrier—the railroad company—must be found at fault through some form of negligence that caused the worker’s injury.

  • People. The cause of the negligence can be something that people did or failed to do, and it includes everyone from the officers and agents of the employer to other employees. It’s important to realize that FELA establishes that employers are responsible for the actions—and inaction—of their employees. 

For example, a supervisor in a hurry may instruct an employee to skip safety protocols, for example, or another employee may enter erroneous settings on a piece of equipment.

  • Things. The cause of the negligence can be related to the machinery and equipment associated with the workplace. FELA names “cars, engines, appliances, machinery, tracks, roadbed, works, boats, wharves, or other equipment,” but negligence can apply to anything in the workplace.

For example, a handle deteriorating from deferred maintenance may give way, braking systems may malfunction, or systems may emit toxic substances.

To launch a successful FELA suit, the worker must be able to prove that the railroad company was negligent in some way in order to establish fault. 

Fault Determination

Under workers’ compensation, fault doesn’t affect the injured worker’s ability to file a claim. If the worker is harmed, that worker can file for the compensations allowed under workers’ compensation.

Under FELA, not only fault but also the degree of fault determines whether a worker will be able to sue for damages and how much they will actually be awarded. The law looks first at fault. Then, it examines the degree of fault.

  • Fault. First, you must be able to prove that the railroad did something wrong and that the wrong thing led to or caused your accident and injury. Essentially, you must prove that the company failed to provide a safe place to work.

People may have been careless, they may have failed to follow established safety practices, or they may have committed outright violations of company or Federal Railroad Administration rules, for example. Machinery or equipment may have failed, or—equally important to realize—it might have functioned properly yet still caused serious injury.

  • Contributory Fault. Then, the FELA process examines whether the injured worker shares any responsibility for what happened. The term used to describe the worker’s share of error is “contributory negligence,” and it’s quantified as a percentage that directly affects how much an injured worker is entitled to in damages. Any percentage of fault that can be attributed to the injured worker’s own contributory negligence is subtracted from the percentage of fault that the company must assume—and the damages that the company must pay.

For example, if a worker was instructed to do something that they knew violated company policy but did it anyway and was injured as a result, that worker may be found to be at least partially responsible for their own injury. If a court decided the worker was 50 percent responsible, the company would only be 50 percent responsible, and the damages awarded would reflect that figure.

If an injured employee admits fault or is found to be at fault at any point, it can directly impact their ability to sue for full damages as a FELA claimant.

This is why reporting the incident immediately to management is critical. So is getting immediate medical attention that is documented accurately, with the correct terminology clearly describing the cause of the injury. The same goes for filing the incident report only once you’re calm, clear-headed and able to give an objective detailed account. Claims agents may seek statements that might allow them to minimize your injuries and need for treatment or shift fault to you and your actions.

Types of Damages

Under workers’ compensation, typical damages include primarily physical medical-related expenses and lost wages related to the injury acquired while on duty. Workers’ comp doesn’t cover pain and suffering or psychological issues, and damages are typically limited or capped with specific qualifiers—$50,000, for example, for the anatomical loss of a minimum of two limbs.

Under FELA, an injured worker can sue for full damages—much like a personal injury suit. More is at stake than what typical workers’ compensation allows.

  • This typically includes medical bills—including future rehabilitative care and therapy—both short-term lost wages and loss of earning capability benefits, physical pain and suffering, scarring and disfigurement, emotional and psychological anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life.
  • Of particular note, damages can include sums to account for future needs and quality of life issues.
  • FELA also includes a wrongful death provision to provide damages to a worker’s spouse or children, parents or other dependent kin.

Where and How Cases are Tried

Under workers’ compensation in Louisiana, for example, the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Law is a no-fault system. Basically, workers have 30 days to report an injury to their employer, who then handles the matter through their workers’ compensation insurance. If an employer fails to handle payment properly, the worker can file to have their case heard before the state Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Court, where the case will be decided by a workers’ compensation judge.

Under FELA, claimants who have suffered an injury due to their employer’s negligence can file suit in state or federal court and have their case decided in a jury trial. This does not preclude settlement out of court, but it does give injured claimants and their survivors the right to present a case demonstrating that the railroad’s negligence was responsible for their injury or loss before an impartial jury of their peers.

The standard statute of limitations on FELA lawsuits is three years from the date of the incident. However, in some cases, the three-year time limit may begin with the discovery of a condition that was caused by the employer’s negligence.

For Railroad Workers, Know What To Do Before You’re Injured

With so much riding on fault and proof of negligence, if you’re employed in the railroad industry, you and your family need to understand your rights under FELA before anything ever happens because the burden of proof of negligence—and obtaining proper compensation—when and if something does happen is on you.

That said, if you’re a railroad worker who’s been injured on the job, you need to reach out to the Louisiana railroad accident attorneys at Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik for a free confidential consultation. We understand what it means to work in the railroad industry and know the law. We also know where negligence often hides. We want to hear your story so that we can figure out exactly where the negligence that harmed you occurred, who is at fault, and how we will get the full damages and compensation you’re entitled to under FELA.

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