A recent three-train collision in Texas left four crew members injured. A BNSF Railway train slammed into the back of a stopped train ahead before a third train collided with the two, totaling about 20 to 30 derailed cars. While there was no risk of hazardous materials being spilled, as the trains were transporting flatbed cars containing truck trailers, two of the four injured workers were left in critical condition after the accident.
Employees throughout the country are protected by laws that compensate them for losses incurred on the job. What most people know of this system is workers’ compensation, which is what an injured oilfield worker or truck driver would use. However, railroad workers are protected under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), which was created before workers’ compensation existed because of the dangerous industry and the severity of a typical nonfatal injury. Both sets of laws have the goal of protecting workers hurt on the job, but below are key differences.
Burden of proof and negligence
Under workers’ compensation, employees “assume the risks” of their occupation, and therefore cannot sue their employer for injuries. Under FELA, there is no assumption of risk, and railroad workers must prove negligence on the part of the employer or railway. Also, FELA follows a contributory negligence standard, which allows injured workers to be partially at fault and still collect damages, but the amount is reduced by their proportion of fault.
Types of damages and limits
Workers’ compensation allows for automatic collection of damages, since the employee does not have the burden of proof. However, these automatic damages have limits. Workers’ compensation only provides reimbursement for lost wages and medical expenses, while FELA compensates for both, plus emotional distress and pain and suffering. A FELA claim does not disburse compensation through a payment schedule or for a limited amount of weeks, as does workers’ compensation. There are also no statutory caps on the amount a person can receive from a FELA claim, while workers’ compensation strictly calculates and classifies each injury.
Injured railroad workers usually have three years from the date of the injury to file a FELA claim.