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The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA)

I am constantly referring the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) in my blogs. I thought it might be a good time to explain what it is and what it does.

The FELA provides a cause of action, or a method by which railroad employees engaged in interstate commerce, or their survivors can seek compensation for injury or death caused by the negligence of any employee or agent of a railroad or by defects in equipment caused by a railroad’s negligence. The FELA was initially enacted by Congress in 1906 in response to the high number of deaths and injuries suffered by railroaders. It was immediately declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Not to be rebuffed, Congress passed the FELA again in 1908. That statute is the same law that covers and provides compensation to injured railroaders today.

Courts have interpreted the FELA to impose a lesser burden on a plaintiff than the common law. Common law proximate cause rules are relaxed meaning that the railroad’s negligence only need to have caused the injury in whole or part, a requirement that courts have interpreted to mean, to any degree, no matter how slight. This standard was reaffirmed in 2011 the case of CSX Transportation v. McBride. A jury question regarding this slight causation requirement may be created by entirely circumstantial evidence.

Under the FELA, a railroader’s contributory negligence is not a bar to recovery, but only results in a proportionate reduction of damages. This means that even if an injured railroader is partially at fault in causing his or her own injuries, he or she can still recover damages for the injuries suffered. In situations involving the violation of a safety statute, contributory negligence has no effect on the recovery. Also, the doctrine of assumption of risk is not a consideration in FELA cases.

Finally, under the FELA, an injured railroader can bring his or her lawsuit in either state or federal court. A suit brought in state court cannot be removed by the railroad to federal court.

Over the next several months I hope to explain and explore the FELA in greater detail.

By Matt Darby

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