FELA (Federal Employers’ Liability Act) laws were instituted in the early 1900s. At the time, the railroad industry in the U.S. had expanded very dramatically. Few safety guidelines or precautions were used by the railroad companies, which were in stiff competition for routes and revenue. As a result of the gross lack of safe working conditions, thousands of railroad workers were killed or severely injured due to the dangers of their work.
Tens of Thousands of Injuries and Deaths among Railroad Workers
For example, in the year 1901 alone, more than 40,000 railroad employees were injured and over 2,600 were killed on the job. As the U.S. Supreme Court later noted, “In 1888 the odds against a railroad brakeman dying a natural death were almost four to one; the average life expectancy of a switchman in 1893 was seven years.”
Although state-administered Workers’ Compensation programs were available for injured railroad workers, these programs were grossly inadequate in most cases and varied widely from state to state. Even worse, the railroad companies rarely lost a case or paid out any benefits; the laws were severely biased in favor of employers. For example, if the railroad worker’s injury or death was due at all to his own fault – even one percent so – there would be no recovery for the worker.
Incredibly, even when the injury or fatality was completely the railroad company’s fault, the employer could successfully argue that the worker “assumed the risk” of working in a dangerous environment and should therefore receive no compensation for his losses.
The President’s Support
In 1901, U.S. Representative Henry Flood (Democrat, Virginia) argued for the passage of better programs to protect the health and safety of railroad employees. The U.S. President at the time, Benjamin Harrison, had also advocated for such laws, noting in a speech to Congress that “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.”
However, the railroad companies fought tooth-and-nail against the passage of FELA and opposed the implementation of any legislation that would increase the protections for their employees. Public outrage over the devastating injuries and deaths among so many railroad workers finally won over, and FELA became the first of several major pieces of social legislation protecting workers in the 20th century.
FELA eliminated the “assumption of risk” concept in railroad injuries, and the Act made it possible for an injured railroad worker to collect compensation even if he was partly at risk for the injury. Instead, a “comparative fault” system was used to determine the recovery; for example, if the worker was found 25 percent responsible for the injury, the compensation would be reduced by 25 percent.
In the decades following the passage of FELA, Congress repeatedly revised the Act to strengthen it in favor of railroad employees and make it easier for the injured or surviving family members to collect benefits when appropriate. Today, injured railroad workers have a fair playing field for being fully compensated for losses.
For more information about FELA laws or to discuss your own claim, contact a FELA lawyer today.