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Railroad Worker Injuries / FELA - Overview

Don’t settle before speaking to an expert

The railroad system presents many dangers for the workers who work long hours to transport goods and passengers across the states.The nature of the occupation puts railroad workers in the path of many potential hazards while they provide a vital role in the country's economy. However, FELA provides all railroad employees with a uniform standard of liability that also forms the basis of any legal claims for injuries sustained at work.

If you are a railroad worker and you have sustained a serious injury at work, or if a family member who worked for a railway company has been killed in a railroad accident in California, it is important to get in touch with an Orange County Workers Compensation Attorney who has a history of successful FELA claims and the necessary professional reputation and resources to help you build a strong case.

In 1908, a special act to help protect thousands of railroad workers was passed by Congress. The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provides railroad workers with a federal system to legally recover from injuries sustained on the job. FELA covers almost all injuries suffered by railroad employees, including:

  • track workers
  • engineers
  • car cleaners
  • signalmen
  • conductors
  • electricians
  • and that of employees who do not necessarily work in or around trains.

FELA claims are typically filed directly with the railroad company that employs the individual, but they may also bring a suit to state or federal court.

FELA Claims and Liability

While an employee typically need not prove liability under the no-fault Workers' Compensation system in order to file a claim, FELA requires that a railroad worker shows how the company has played a role in his or her injury through negligence. The proof needed in a Federal Employers Liability Act claim is known as "featherweight burden of proof", which means that the employer was 'somehow' negligent, even if the negligence was negligible compared to the severity of the injuries. The worker only needs to show that one of the FELA guidelines has been violated, which led to an injury.

Federal Employers Liability Act lawyers will usually consult with other experts in solving complicated liability issues and to assess the compliance of the railroad company with federal workplace standards. In addition, your attorney will focus on:

  1. Conducting a thorough investigation of the incident with the help of industry experts in accident reconstruction;
  2. Assessing the financial aspect of your FELA claim based on the total current impact of the injury and its projected future impact on your life and finances.
  3. Providing informed, honest guidance regarding the likelihood of your FELA claim against your employer, or your third-party lawsuit against a third party.

While its main purpose is to provide a legal remedy for injured railroad workers, FELA also provides a guideline for work safety standards on the railroad industry. Employers are required to provide a reasonably safe workplace, and the worker may have to prove that the company failed to do so, and that negligence contributed to the injury.

The Federal Employers Liability Act requires that railroad employers:

  • Provide a reasonably safe work environment, along with safety devices, and safe tools and equipment;
  • Provide workers with adequate training, assistance, and supervision to help them fulfill their job requirements;
  • Ensure that workers are protected from intentionally harmful acts of others;
  • Prevent unreasonable work quotas;
  • Enforce safety guidelines.

Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) Compensation Guidelines

FELA typically involves three different kinds of compensation, including:

  • past and future loss of wages
  • past and future medical expenses
  • past and future mental distress, pain and suffering.

Spouses and children of injured railroad workers who eventually died because of the injuries may be entitled to compensation. In the event of no spouse or children, the compensation will go to other close relatives, such as parents.

Comparative Negligence in a FELA Defense

The Federal Employers Liability Act offers railroad workers with a high level of protection, but it also provides defendants (railroad companies) with the possibility of comparative negligence.

A comparative negligence defense gives the railroad company the right to claim that the injured worker also contributed to the injury. A jury will typically decide whether the company or the injured worker should be held liable for the injuries. Each party may be assigned a percentage of fault, and that will affect the amount of damages to be awarded.

Alternative Dispute Resolution in a FELA Claim

Not every FELA claim will be taken to trial. In some cases, a judge will order alternative dispute resolution. A judge may recommend that parties work through mediation, arbitration or mandatory settlement conferences first, and proceeding to trial as a final remedy. Alternative dispute resolutions often lead to settlement without trial.

Steps to a Successful FELA Claim

A FELA settlement should ideally be settled before it reaches court, because a good settlement beats a bad verdict hands down. Your attorney should ideally submit your demand/settlement letter as soon as you are made aware of the full extent of your injuries. The FELA claim agent will present a general theory of the incident, including:

  • case details
  • information about your injuries
  • and an opening demand.

The claim agent and your lawyer will discuss various items of evidence, including medical records, photographs and statements the likelihood of a fair settlement.

The Value of Your FELA Case

Some injuries will require extensive physical therapy, which will increase the value of your case. The value will also change if you are unable to continue working in the same job you had before the accident. An expert FELA claims attorney will have experience and outside resources who will be able to provide the value of your case, which might lie somewhere between the best case scenario and what you consider acceptable.

Settling a FELA Case

It could take around two months from the initial demand for your case to be settled, at which point you will know what to expect. The railroad may face delays while they wait for authority. Your lawyer will only file a suit if no settlement is reached. The lawyer will decide whether the case should go to federal or state court, but the process remains the same.

Once the complaint is filed, the railroad is given 30-60 days to submit an answer. This is followed by a court-scheduled conference which will put a Discovery Plan in place.

During discovery, both sides will learn more about the evidence the other side has. The process involves:

  • Paper discovery, which is the exchange of medical records and other important documents.
  • Depositions, which gives each lawyer the opportunity to question witnesses for the opposition.
  • Expert, the process during which the carrier considers expert reports turned over by your lawyer. These may be medical reports as well as accident reports.

The railroad company will choose a doctor to choose you, and your lawyer will obtain a report of the examination, which will be shown to your doctors.

On completion of the expert discovery phase, the insurance carrier will probably file motions; in most cases, they will request that the court dismiss a piece of evidence or your case. In response, your lawyer will oppose the motion. During the pending motions, parties will usually make an effort at settling the case, or they will wait until the court decide the motion.

By the time motions are filed, both parties have a solid grasp on the other party's case. The court will encourage the attorneys to find a resolution.

The trial is usually the final phase in a FELA case. It can take as long as a year from the time the suit is filed to the start of trial, due to the amount of preparation for trial.

FELA Compensation Trial

You will be prepared for court in the weeks leading up to the start of the trial through meetings with your lawyer.

Both parties will:

  • file legal briefs with the couts
  • select, copy, and prepare exhibits
  • send out witness subpoenas
  • arrange doctors for live or video testimony.

The trial process involves many parts as well, including:

  • jury selection
  • hearing the plaintiff's case (your case)
  • hearing the defense case (railroad's case)
  • the verdict.

In some cases, there will be post-verdict motions, and sometimes, an appeal.

During the plaintiff's case, you have the burden-of-proof, which means you have to prove to the court that you are entitled to compensation for your injury (recovery and damages). The defense will cross-examine your witnesses, and use their own witnesses to try convince the jury that you do not have a case because of the details of the accident and your injuries.

Finally, the jury will deliberate on a verdict, which can take minutes to hours to reach. They may send notes to request for testimony to be read or for evidence to be reviewed. During these deliberations, both sides may feel anxious as they try to interpret the jury's thoughts. Sometimes, parties decide to settle when they hear the questions from the jury, and predict that the case may not be settled in their favor.

On conclusion of the deliberations, the verdict will be read in open court, and the judge will provide a time limit by which motions should be filed to challenge the verdict, or to file an appeal with the next court. However, most cases settle at the verdict.

FELA Settlements

Railroad claim agents are motivated to settle claims as soon as possible and will offer you a settlement right away provided you do not hire a lawyer. This may be tempting, especially if the accident was relatively straightforward, and if you feel confident that you do not require more medical treatment.There will be a point in time where you simply want a quick settlement to make up for pain, suffering and lost wages.

However, you should guard against settling too quickly. At this point you may know:

  • how much money you lost in wages
  • how much your injury has cost in medical expenses.

However, there are some things that you do not know and that's why settling too soon is a bad idea.

  • You do not know how long you will be out of work. Perhaps you have a vague idea, based on your doctor's projections of the typical healing time of a similar injury. But everyone's body is different and there may be setbacks, especially if you return to work too soon.
  • You don't know how your injury may affect future employment prospects. Perhaps you know that you may not be able to work on the railroad, but until you find another job and know how well you can handle that, you don't know how the injury will affect your future earning ability.
  • You don't know whether you may suffer complications from your injury a few months or years down the line that require further, expensive medical procedures.

It is not uncommon for people to settle with the claims adjuster quickly, just to learn later on that:

  • they have been demoted from their former job due to the injury and now earn much less.
  • they had to find a different job, not knowing that the injury also made it difficult to function properly at that job, and they had to leave that too.
  • since they had settled early on, they are no longer entitled to compensation to cover unexpected future medical procedures needed to deal with complications from the injury.
Get the Best Advice Regarding Your FELA Claim

If you are a railroad worker who has been injured on duty, it is important to let an Orange County Workers Compensation Attorney with experience in FELA claims review your case before you settle. The right advice early on to ensure that your best interests are secured throughout the process. Call us today on 949-423-3212 to schedule an initial case review with one of our expert FELA claims attorneys.

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