New Jersey Railroad Worker Injury Lawyers

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA)


Railroad workers who are injured on the job are not provided the prompt and certain relief afforded to injured workers in other industries by no-fault workers’ compensation laws. To recover for an on the job injury, railroad workers must prove their cases under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), which was passed by Congress in 1907. This law requires proof that the injury to the worker was caused, in whole or in part, by the negligence of the railroad through the conduct of another railroad employee, agent, and/or contractor. Although in contrast to workers’ compensation laws the FELA requires a showing of negligence or fault, it employs the doctrine of comparative negligence, even in jurisdictions that have adhered to the common law doctrine of contributory negligence. Therefore, in FELA claims an employee who was himself somewhat negligent may, nevertheless, recover something for his/her injuries. Rather than deny recovery completely as would happen upon a finding of contributory negligence in jurisdictions still adhering to the common law contributory negligence doctrine (still applicable in several jurisdictions in ordinary, non- railroad negligence claims), FELA awards are reduced by the percentage the employee’s negligence is found to have contributed to his injury. Because of the differences between FELA cases and ordinary negligence cases in terms of the required proof and the effect of the employee’s own contributory negligence, courts have sometimes exhibited a reluctance to follow the letter and spirit of the law. The railroad industry itself has repeatedly sought Congressional action to amend, repeal or alter the FELA, seeking to substitute in its place a system similar to ordinary workers’ compensation claims. Congress has steadfastly rejected these overtures to repeal or amend the FELA, and in so doing, has reaffirmed its support for the wisdom of the law as drafted and as applied since its inception. The legislative history of the FELA and judicial decisions interpreting this law make it plain that Congress has always regarded the FELA as more than a compensation scheme for railroad workers, but also as an inducement to the railroad industry to promote safe work practices to reduce the number of injuries.


In the years between 1889 and 1920, railroad use in this country expanded sixfold. With this expansion, the dangers to the railroad worker increased. See, H. Barber, The Transportation Industries 1889-1949, A Study of Output, Employment and Productivity (1951). President Harrison addressed these dangers in a speech to Congress in 1889 in which he compared the plight of the railroad worker to a soldier at war when he stated: “It is a reproach to our civilization that any class of American workmen, should in the pursuit of a necessary and useful vocation, be subjected to a peril of life and limb as great as that of a soldier in time of war.” See, Johnson v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co ., 196 U.S. 1, 19 (1904). In discussing the need for legislation to address the railroad workers’ exposure to harm, Congressman Flood, a strong advocate for the passage of the FELA, referred to alarming statistics about the injuries and deaths associated with work on the railroad. 40 Cong. Rec. (1906)

To curb these dangers, Congress relied upon the experience of certain states which had already passed legislation similar to the FELA to support the proposition that the FELA would lead to increased safety on the railroad. Congressman Flood, in urging the House of Representatives to “follow the lead of those enlightened and progressive states” 40 Cong.Rec. 4607 (1906) (Rep. Flood-Virginia) stated, “There can be no doubt that the enactment of the [state] laws was wise and has been conducive to greater care on the part of the railroads, and has not only saved the lives and limbs of worthy and deserving employees but of passengers as well.” Id . Another Congressman echoed this sentiment in addressing a FELA proposal to alter the fellow servant rule when he said, “The best inducement to look after their employees and see that they have careful men employed, sober men employed, employed not more than ten hours at a time without sleep – the best way to enforce this is requiring them [the railroads] to pay damages when an engineer on duty for twenty hours falls asleep and an injury occurs.” 40 Cong. Rec. 4606 (1906) ( Rep. Mann-Illinois).

After the passage of the FELA, the United States Supreme Court recognized the Congressional intent to promote safety through the FELA when it opined: “The Act … is intended to stimulate carriers to greater diligence for the safety of their employees and of the persons and property of their patrons.” Jamison v. Encarnacion, 281 U.S. 635, 640 (1930). Clearly, Congress passed the FELA to force the railroads to impose safe working conditions not just for the protection of the workers but also for the protection of the public at large.

In addition, the early legislative history reflects other Congressional motivations which were in effect when the FELA was initiated and passed. Congress made the determination that railroad work was inherently dangerous, and, having reached this decision, determined that it should spread the inevitable costs associated with the injuries and deaths which result from this danger to the railroad industry, because it was in the best position to bear the cost and to reduce these costs over time by the implementation of safer work practices.

The Senate Committee which initially reported the FELA out of committee concluded that the law was designed to achieve the broad purpose of promoting “the welfare of both employers and employee, by adjusting the losses and injuries inseparable from the industry, and commerce to the strength of those who in the nature of the case ought to share the burden.” Senate Report No. 460, 6th Congress 1st Session 3. The members of the House of Representatives agreed with this view as indicated by the debate at 45 Cong. Rec. 4034 (1910), where it was reported that, “It is the intention of Congress in the enactment of this law originally and it may be presumed to be the intention of the present Congress, to shift the burden of the loss resulting from these casualties from ‘those least able to bear it’ and place it upon those who can, as the Supreme Court said in the Taylor case (210 US 281), ‘measurably control their causes.'”

The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged this legislative purpose. In Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U.S. 60, 68 (1948), in a concurring opinion, Justice Douglas noted: “[T]he F.E.L.A. was designed to put on the railroad industry some of the cost for the legs, eyes, arms, and lives which it consumed in its operations.” In a later opinion, the Court stated that the “inescapable expense of railroading, must be borne by someone, and the F.E.L.A. seeks to adjust that expense equitably between the worker and the carrier.” Kernan v. American Dredginq Co., 355 U.S. 426, 431.

Congress also specifically designed the FELA to represent a departure from common law tort principles which Congress felt were inadequate to achieve its remedial and regulatory aims respecting the railroad industry. One congressman stated that the FELA was intended “to give relief against the rigors of the common-law.” 40 Cong. Rec. 4608 (1906) (Rep. Flood). Another congressman explained: “The passage of the original Act and the perfection thereof by the amendments herein proposed stand forth as a declaration of public policy to radically change, as far as congressional power can extend, those rules of the common law… ” 45 Cong. Rec. 4034 (1910). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court fully appreciated the intent of Congress and warned the lower courts not to rely on common law principles when applying the FELA because of the manifest congressional intent to the contrary. The Court explained that lower court reliance on common law principles to interpret the FELA represented a form of “judicial hostility” which has “hobbled the full play of the basic congressional intention.” Rogers v. Missouri Pacific RR Co., 352 U.S. 500, 509(1957).

Therefore, the congressional implementation of a causation standard which only requires that injuries be caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the railroad, as opposed to proximate causation, must be viewed as an expression of congressional intent to depart from the common law. Likewise, the FELA’s reliance on comparative negligence, as opposed to the principles of contributory negligence, which were much more popular at the time of the act’s passage, further exhibits this specific intent to forsake common law principles. As the Court stated in Sinkler v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 356 U.S. 326, 329(1957): “[I]n interpreting the F.E.L.A., we need not depend upon common-law principles of liability. This statute, an avowed departure from the rules of common-law, was a response to the special needs of railroad workers who are daily exposed to the risks inherent in railroad work and are helpless to provide for their own safety.”

In the forty-four years following the enactment of the FELA, twenty-six bills were introduced to replace the FELA with workers’ compensation. Congress refused in each instance to make this change, demonstrating its conviction that its regulatory and compensatory purposes can best be achieved through the FELA. These attacks upon the FELA have continued to the present, and in each instance they have been rebuffed by a Congress acutely aware of the need in the railroad industry for a law with the bite necessary to drive home the cause of safety for the public and for railroad workers exposed to the peculiar hazards of this industry on a daily basis.


Negligence has been defined as the doing of something that a reasonably prudent person would not do, or the failure to do something that a reasonably prudent person would do under the same or similar circumstances. In simpler terms, it is the failure to use reasonable or ordinary care. In the context of FELA cases, the reasonably prudent railroad worker is substituted for the reasonably prudent person. As stated above, the requirement of causation in FELA cases is relaxed compared to that employed in ordinary negligence cases, and the injured worker need only prove that the injury was caused, in whole or in part, by the negligence of the railroad through the negligent conduct of another railroad employee, agent, and/or contractor. If the injured employee was himself negligent, rather than strike out the whole award, as in most ordinary negligence cases in which the common law doctrine of contributory negligence is applied, the award in a FELA case is reduced by the percentage that the employee’s own negligence contributed to his injury. For instance, if the employee was found to be 70% negligent and the railroad was found to be 30% negligent, the railroad workers damage verdict would be reduced by 70%.


If the worker can show negligence, he or she can recover the following damages, generally payable in a lump sum award:

wage loss, past and future

medical expenses not covered by insurance provided by the railroad and not already paid by the railroad

pain and suffering, past and future, including damages for disfigurement from scarring

permanent injury

emotional distress


FELA claims may be pursued in State or Federal court and a jury trial is provided to the injured railroad worker. The jury determines whether there was negligence on the part of the railroad (which may be shown by the doctrine of respondeat superior, which makes the railroad responsible for any negligence of the injured workers’ coworkers or other railroad personnel), whether there was any negligence of the injured worker, the percentage of comparative negligence contributing to the injury by each, and the amount of damages, if any.


Every injured railroad worker must remember that there is a strong possibility that he could be a party to litigation against his employer at some point following the injury and act accordingly. The railroad is acutely aware of its exposure each time a worker is injured and has trained its supervisors to immediately begin gathering information to defend itself against you. In the event you are injured, you must realize that you are now viewed by the railroad as an opponent, and the railroad will do everything lawful in its power to damage your claim and limit its expense. You must take steps to protect yourself. First, make certain that you obtain the best medical care available. Second, make a note of all the persons known to you who witnessed the accident and/or who have knowledge of the circumstances. Memories fade, and it may be crucial for you to be able to marshall witnesses. Third, avoid giving a statement until you have spoken to a lawyer or a union representative. Even if you are told that giving a statement is a routine step in the event of an injury, avoid it. Things you say in a statement may be used against you in Court. You will not be able to anticipate what will help or hurt you in a statement, but the people asking you the questions are trained to elicit damaging information in a manner you will not detect. Fourth, speak to an experienced attorney as soon as possible and give him/her all the information you can about what happened. Following these steps will help you protect yourself and obtain the best recovery under the circumstances.

For more information or to speak with an experienced Newark, New Jersey railroad worker injury lawyer, contact Keefe Law Firm.

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