FELA vs. Workers’ Compensation
Workers in most industries are insured for work-related injuries under state workers’ compensation laws. Railroad workers, however, are covered by the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). Both systems were established as progressive measures to compensate workers for on-the-job injuries and work-related illnesses, and to promote safety measures on the part of employers. FELA was passed by Congress in 1907. In 1911, New Jersey was one of twelve states to pass workers’ compensation legislation (at that time referred to as workman’s compensation). Beyond the industries affected, distinctions between the programs include the bases for claims, the role of fault in determining an award, the court where the case is handled, types of damages, and the contemporary philosophy underlying the legislation.
The basis for a claim: FELA requires a railroad worker to prove an on-the-job injury was, at least in part, the result of negligence on the part of the railroad (or a railroad employee, agent, or contractor). In contrast, New Jersey Workers’ Compensation law, like that in other states, does not require proof of negligence, and requires an employer to compensate a worker for any work-related injury or occupational illness.
The role of negligence in a claim: Workers’ comp does not require any evidence of negligence on the part of the employer, and negligence on the part of the employee will not reduce the amount of the claim. FELA observes the doctrine of contributory negligence, a fault-sharing system where an employee partially responsible for his or her on-the-job injury will receive an award reduced in proportion to that responsibility. Determining the percentage of fault in a FELA case is highly subjective; as a result the decision of a court used to the traditional personal injury system may be hard to predict.
Where the claim is tried: An injured railway work may file a FELA claim in a New Jersey State or Federal court, and is entitled to a jury trial. A worker injured in another industry will file a claim with the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance company. In the event of a dispute, the worker may file a claim petition or application for an informal hearing with the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation. The case will then be assigned to a state judge and district based on the county where the worker lives or is employed.
Types of damages available: Both FELA and workers’ comp claims provide damages for past and future wage loss and medical treatment. FELA provides damages for pain, suffering, and emotional distress; workers’ compensation does not. Each plan provides some compensation for permanent partial or total disability, and workers’ compensation has a payment schedule to compensate for the loss of use of a limb, hearing, vision, or other function. The way damages are calculated differs significantly between the plans.
Why two systems? The railroad industry has repeatedly lobbied Congress to repeal FELA or replace it with a system similar to workers’ compensation; Congress has resisted. Supporters of FELA cite it as more than a railroad workers’ compensation plan, providing critical encouragement to the railroads to curb unsafe practices and improve dangerous work environments.
In the event of a work-related accidents
The railroads and other employers will attempt to minimize costs resulting from an on-the-job accident or work-related illness. Supervisors are trained to immediately collect information and evidence to support the employer’s defense against any claim for damages. To preserve the right to FELA or workers’ compensation benefits, an injured worker should report the accident or illness, but not make any statement until after consulting with a workers’ compensation or FELA lawyer or with a union representative. The worker should immediately record the names and contact information of any witnesses, and write out a private record of any events surrounding the accident.