What Is FELA?
The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), is a United States federal law that protects and compensates railroaders injured on the job .
In the years between 1889 and 1920, railroad use in the U.S. expanded
six-fold. With this expansion, the dangers to the railroad worker
President Benjamin Harrison addressed these dangers in a speech to the United States Congress in 1889, in which he compared the plight of the railroad worker to those of a soldier at war:
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.
In discussing the need for legislation to address the railroad worker's exposure to harm, U.S. Representative Henry D. Flood,
a strong advocate for the passage of the FELA, referred to alarming
statistics about the injuries and deaths associated with work on the
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. Flood, in urging the U.S. House of Representatives to "follow the lead of those enlightened and progressive states."
The Adoption of the Act
The FELA Act enacted in 1906 was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1908 legislation passed by Congress, however, withstood tests.
Congress passed FELA in response to the high number of railroad
deaths in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Under FELA,
railroad workers who are not covered by regular workers’ compensation
laws are able to sue companies over their injury claims. FELA allows
monetary payouts for pain and suffering, decided by juries based on comparative negligence rather than pursuant to a pre-determined benefits schedule under workers' compensation.
FELA was not intended to be awarded automatically. Unlike State Workers' Compensation Law, FELA requires the injured railroader to prove that the railroad was "legally negligent,"
at least in part, in causing the injury. After proving negligence, the
injured railroader is entitled to full compensation. Such compensation
is usually many times greater than that provided by State Worker's
Compensation for non-railroaders.
Attempts to revise
In the 44 years following the enactment of the FELA, 26 bills were
introduced to replace the FELA with workers' compensation. Congress
refused in each instance to make this change. These attacks upon the
FELA have continue today, and in each instance they have been
rebuffed by Congress thanks to information shared through UTU PAC.