What Role Does Negligence Play in FELA Claims?

by Scott Gershenson, Associate

Some railroad workers, medical and billing professionals, and even some attorneys think that any employee who is injured at work is covered by a state’s workers’ compensation laws. This can lead to much confusion. The truth, with very few exceptions, is that railroad workers are NOT covered by workers’ compensation. Instead, they are covered by the Federal Employers Liability Act (or “FELA”). The biggest difference in these two laws is that, under the FELA, a railroad worker must prove that his/her injury was caused by the negligence of the employer-railroad in order to recover any compensation. Without proof of such negligence, a railroad worker has no right to recover any money.

The FELA is the exclusive remedy for injured railroad workers. Importantly, the FELA requires that the injured employee prove that the railroad was somehow negligent in causing the employee’s injury–that, for instance, the railroad failed to provide reasonably safe working conditions, equipment, or methods of work, and that such failure caused or contributed to the employee’s injuries. A common example of an unsafe workplace condition is presence of oil or debris that creates a slip or trip hazard. Common examples of unsafe equipment include defective locomotives, railcars or track switches and malfunctioning handbrakes.

Although an injured railroad employee must establish that the railroad was negligent in causing his or her injuries in order to recover under the FELA, the evidence required at trial is much less than an ordinary negligence claim, such as a claim arising from a motor vehicle injury or a slip-and-fall at a retail store. Rather, under the FELA, the injured employee must only show that the railroad’s negligence played any part–even the slightest–in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought. However, in an attempt to reduce damages available to the employee, the railroad will often try to demonstrate that the employee was “contributorily negligent.” This means that the employee’s actions (or inactions) caused or contributed to cause the incident. Importantly, a railroad employee being partially at fault in causing the injury incident does not completely bar his or her right to recover, but may reduce his or her recovery (proportionate to the fault attributed to the employee). [1]

Proof of FELA negligence against the railroad can come from a variety of different sources, including company records and testimony from witnesses. For example, if a railroad employee is injured after tripping on debris, evidence that another employee complained to his or her manager about that condition one week earlier would show that the railroad was aware of that same condition and failed to take any action to address the safety hazard, contributing to cause the employee’s injury.

Schlichter Bogard & Denton’s experienced Railroad Injury attorneys know what documents to obtain from the railroad, even if it means getting a court order to force the railroad to turn them over. It is also our role as advocates for railroad workers to investigate injury incidents by interviewing key witnesses and determine whether others were injured by the same defective workplace condition or equipment.

 

These pieces of evidence are the building blocks for which FELA attorneys help “make their case” that the railroad was negligent in causing an employee’s injuries. If one is successful in demonstrating that the railroad committed negligence, then the employee is entitled to money damages arising from that injury–which are broader than those limited funds provided under a state’s workers’ compensation program. Railroads often attempt to hide or destroy evidence that shows their negligence. This requires aggressive representation and getting a judge to order the railroad to turn over damaging evidence. Accordingly, the likelihood of a successful injury compensation claim depends a lot on having an experienced lawyer that is prepared to fight to prove that an on-duty injury was caused by railroad negligence.

As always, if you believe you may have a claim, we urge you to contact our experienced, dedicated Railroad Injury attorneys as soon as possible to help you analyze your claim and potentially file a complaint.

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[1] A railroad employee can also demonstrate that the railroad was negligent under the FELA if the railroad violated a specific state or federal rail safety statute. If the violation of that statute is shown to have caused or contributed to cause the employee’s injury, then the railroad is not permitted to argue that the employee’s negligence contributed in any way to the injury incident.