The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) is a U.S. federal law that was enacted in 1908 to protect and compensate railroad workers injured on the job, if the worker can prove that the railroad was at least partly legally negligent in causing the injury. It is based upon the federal government’s power over interstate commerce, granted by the commerce clause in the Constitution. Prior to its inception there was no remedy for injured railroad workers.
Although the protection FELA offers for railroad workers is similar to the workers’ compensation insurance provided in other industries, unlike workers’ compensation, FELA is a fault based system. To receive benefits under FELA, the injured railroad worker must prove that the injury was caused in whole or in part by the negligence of a railroad employee, its agent or contractor, or from a faulty piece of equipment. However, if the worker is not found to be 100% at fault, he has the right to sue for damages in either a state or federal court, which is not an option for workers’ compensation claimants.
In addition, FELA awards are generally much higher than those of workers’ compensation claims. FELA uses the legal doctrine of “comparative negligence”. This means that the jury determines the percentage of negligence for which each party is liable and this establishes the percentage of the award to be allocated to the worker.
FELA has been extremely controversial since its enactment, and has been interpreted many thousands of times by both federal and state appellate courts. Originally, railroad employers fought the adoption of a workers’ compensation system for railroad employee injuries, whereas the railroad unions favored this system. Their positions have since reversed. Employers now would prefer to replace FELA with workers’ compensation, but labor unions argue to maintain FELA.
FELA covers more than just bodily injuries sustained from working for the railroad. It also covers injuries due to asbestos exposure, as well as repetitive stress and cumulative trauma injuries. In addition, FELA cases have played a significant role in establishing precedent for many tort law issues, such as emotional distress damages availability, damages allocation and standards for working conditions and employee safety.