What is FELA?

FELA, or the Federal Employers Liability Act, gives railroad workers not covered by regular workers’ compensation laws the right to sue their employers for damages if injured while on the job. Under FELA, workers have been allowed monetary payouts for pain and suffering by allowing a jury to determine awards based on comparative negligence. Congress passed FELA in response to the thousands of deaths and injuries in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and since then, the industry has been unable to reform the law.

FELA law was intended to make the railroad industry less dangerous, though railroad companies have been trying to seek reform after being sued for large awards under the law. Despite the ability to win jury awards, workers are sometimes forced to wait years if the railroad company fights the decisions. Some workers have even lost full compensation because of their legal actions. For fear of disciplinary action or retaliation, FELA attorneys and transportation union officials have said many railroad injuries go unreported. The railroad industry’s consolidation in the late 1990s has only further intimidated some workers.

There have been hundreds of solvent exposure lawsuits, with former and current railroad workers claiming illnesses such as brain damage because of unsafe working conditions. CSX, the eastern United State’s largest railroad has acknowledged 466 solvent settlements totaling over $35 million, with many more solvent lawsuits pending and expected to be filed. Even though the majority of major railroads have phased out the use of the most toxic solvents, workers had been exposed to high amounts of solvents for long periods of time from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Many medical experts believe instances of brain damage and toxic encephalopathy have been misdiagnosed as other conditions.

CSX still continues to deny a link between solvent exposure and brain damage, despite the dozens of published studies finding a connection. The company has even commented on its’ belief that some law firms aggressively recruited clients and helped plant the idea that workers were sick. Critics of the railroad industry, and those who allege the industry has been involved in covering up the knowledge of the dangers workers were being exposed to, thinks FELA allows some degree of liability to loom over a guilty industry. The inability for the industry to abolish or reform FELA law has allowed a way for some of those injured workers to seek damages.

Still, under FELA law, workers must prove employer negligence, which can be extremely difficult especially against such large railroad companies. Many workers can become intimidated by this fact alone. CSX has been the focus of nearly all the railroad lawsuits, though Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern, which later merged with Santa Fe, have also been targets. The flurry of lawsuits filed under FELA law in 1987 after a pivotal settlement was decided was classified by the industry as being bogus. The FELA attorneys working on the case uncovered the wide use of chemical solvents in the absence of even the most basic workplace safety precautions.

The use of even such simple occupational standards like respirators when applying solvents was not even communicated to workers until late 1980s or early 1990s. Even so, some workers diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy decided not to file FELA lawsuits because of their desire to avoid the emotional stress that can accompany legal action. While CSX has tried to discredit the severity of solvent exposed diagnoses, evidence, testimony, internal documents and medical science continues to support connections between solvent exposure and brain damage.

For more information on FELA laws, please contact a FELA lawyer.