The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) contains a three-year statute of limitations. But what is a statute of limitations? It is a law that sets the time limit for filing a lawsuit. If an FELA lawsuit is not filed within the three years (what is sometimes called the “limitations period”), it is likely that the court will dismiss the lawsuit, and the employee will receive no compensation. Importantly, what has to be done within the three-year limitations period is the actual filing of a written complaint with the court. Merely notifying the railroad of an injury is not enough. Engaging in settlement discussions is not enough. A formal legal complaint must be filed with the court.
In certain situations, which are very uncommon, a court may extend the time for filing a lawsuit. This is known as “tolling.” For example, tolling may occur if the railroad has intimidated the employee into not filing a lawsuit, or if the injured railroad worker becomes mentally incapacitated. Whether the time period can be extended depends greatly on the facts of the particular case. The best course of action is to assume that the statute of limitations for an FELA case will be no longer than three years.
The purpose of a statute of limitations is primarily to protect defendants, in this case railroads. The law presumes that after a certain amount of time, a party should no longer have to worry about past claims. But another purpose of the law protects both parties - the deterioration and loss of evidence. As time passes, memories fade and documents get lost or thrown away. Bringing a claim timely benefits both parties by making the best evidence available to them both.
Injured railroaders should not delay in contacting an experienced railroad attorney after an injury at work, and the statute of limitations is one important reason why. In the next two parts of this series, we'll examine how the statute of limitations is different in an injury claim, versus and occupational or repetitive injury claim.
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H. David Leibensperger