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Why We Need The FELA

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at two (2) Union Meetings, one in West Seneca, New York and the other in Altoona, Pennsylvania. One of the themes of the presentation dealt with the importance of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). We had some really good discussions and I thought it would be a good topic for a blog, so here I go. In contrast to State Workers’ Compensation Laws, the FELA requires that an injured employee prove that he or she did not have a reasonably safe place in which to work in order to recover any damages, including lost wages. In other words, there must be a showing that the railroad was negligent. At the meetings, it was clear that there was a question as to why the FELA is necessary.

The History and Purpose of FELA

In order to understand this very astute question, it is important for us to understand the historical purpose of the FELA. All railroad employees recognize that railroad work is dangerous. At the time that the FELA was passed in 1908, 4,500 railroad workers died and nearly 88,000 were injured performing railroad work. In response to the carnage taking place along the nation’s tracks, Congress enacted the FELA. The purpose of the FELA was appropriately summarized by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas when he said “the Federal Employers’ Liability Act was designed to put on the railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes and lives which it consumed in its operation”. Therefore, the FELA was designed to achieve two (2) goals. First, it was designed to provide injured railroad workers or their surviving family members fair compensation for injuries and deaths sustained while working on the railroad. Of equal importance, the FELA creates a financial incentive for railroads to improve safety. The New York Times published a Pulitzer Prize – winning expose in 2005 which confirmed that railroad work is still dangerous. The New York Times concluded that left to their own devices, railroads skimp on safety and cover up wrong doing. This is hardly a secret to those working for a railroad!

The Whistleblower Provision of FELA

The culture found on railroads was further evidenced by Congress’ decision to pass the 2007 Amendments to the Federal Rail Safety Act, which included a very strong Whistleblower provision. Obviously, Congress felt that railroads still needed an additional incentive to create a safe place for employees’ to work as well as a law for compensating railroad employees who report unsafe conditions. Again, an attempt to create a financial incentive for railroads to do the right thing.

Therefore, in answer to the question posed at my two (2) recent meetings, the reason that the FELA requires a showing of negligence is that it is an important component of railroad safety. Left to their own devices, railroads would simply ignore safety and treat their employees like any other piece of equipment; they would simply get rid of it when it was no longer profitable.

By Matt Darby

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