Railroad workers are subjected to numerous safety hazards during the course of their workday. While some of these dangers cause minor or temporary injuries, others are so severe that they are disabling, causing the employee to miss work, rack up expensive medical bills, suffer pain, and lose their quality of life. Sometimes these railroad accidents are even deadly. While railroad workers are not covered by workers compensation, they do have other legal options to help them recover damages incurred by accidents at work.
In the years between 1889 and 1920, the railroad industry in the United States began to expand tremendously. With this expansion came the increase of railroad worker injuries. In fact, in 1889 President Benjamin Harrison compared the hazards endured by railroad workers to those experienced by soldiers during wartime. Additionally, in 1906 United States Representative Henry Flood referred to disturbing statistics about the severe on the job injuries and fatalities associated with railroad workers. During that period, 1 our of every 8 railroad workers were injured on the job, and 1 our of every 125 lost their loves. As a result, the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) was passed in 1908.
Unlike workers compensation benefits, which tend to grossly under-compensate workers who are injured on the job and do not provide recovery for pain and suffering, FELA offers a much more complete solution. In fact, some experts suggest that FELA is 90 percent more likely to offer adequate coverage than workers compensation. A comparison of the two reveals:
- Under workers compensation, an injured worker typically only receives partial reimbursement for lost wages (usually 2/3 his or her pay). injured railroad workers who are covered by FELA, however, can receive 100 percent of his or her lost wages including overtime. In some cases, this includes lost future wages as well.
- Those workers covered by FELA can receive all of their future benefits that they would have received had they been able to continue working.
- Under FELA, injured workers who lose the enjoyment of their quality of life due to on the job accidents can recover compensation for such losses. Sometimes this compensation can lead to millions of dollars. This is not an option with workers compensation.
- One of the only features that workers compensation has over FELA is that in a workers compensation case, the injured worker is not required to prove negligence. Even if the worker is 100 percent at fault for his or her injury, workers compensation pays. The amount of negligence that must be proven under FELA, however, is slight. Basically, the worker only needs to prove that the employer did not provide a safe place to work. In instances where the worker is found to be partially at fault, FELA requires that comparative negligence be used to determine the percentage of compensation that should be awarded.
It important to note that when the railroad is in violation of any railroad safety law, like theSafety Appliance Act or Locomotive Inspection Act, or an OSHA regulation, the railroad is held liable for 100 percent of damages even if the worker is completely at fault.
FELA and Wrongful Death
When a railroad worker loses his or her life on the job, a surviving spouse or other representative of the estate can file a lawsuit to recover damages incurred. The statute of limitations for filing such a claim under FELA is three years. The first step in a wrongful death case is to establish that the railroad’s negligence or violation of a railroad safety statute was the cause of the worker’s death. Once this has been established, the surviving spouse, children, parents or next of kin can be awarded compensation for:
- The pain and suffering experienced by the deceased employee before death occurred.
- Financial losses from missed wages, benefits, and goods and services that would have been provided to the family members had the worker lived.
- Medical expenses and funeral expenses incurred as a result of the accident.
Unfortunately, the railroad is not liable for damages like mental or emotional distress of the surviving family members under FELA.
In many situations, a railroad claims agent may attempt to contact the survivors and attempt to offer a quick settlement. It is important for individuals to remember that these types of settlement offerings are typically a fraction of the compensation that can be recovered with the assistance of an experienced wrongful death attorney. Surviving family members should never agree to accept any amount of compensation, sign any type of paperwork or make a recorded statement without consulting with their union representative or an attorney who is experienced with FELA first. After all, it is the goal of claims agents to minimize financial losses the railroad might incur due to wrongful death accidents.