Steps in Filing a FELA Claim
Railroad workers face a dangerous work environment, and Congress has provided protection for these workers through the Federal Employer Liability Act (FELA). Under FELA, railroad workers are able to seek damages in federal or state court for injuries or illnesses they suffered while on the job. FELA claims are similar to claims eligible employees can file through the state workers compensation system in that both provide avenues for workers to obtain compensation for their on-the-job injuries. Though they have similarities, there are some significant differences between the two.
With workers’ compensation, the injured employee does not need to prove that their illness or injury was caused by their employer’s negligence. They must only prove that the illness or injury was work-related. With a workers’ comp claim, an injured employee can only recover compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and a resulting disability, and an employee is generally barred from bringing a personal injury lawsuit against their employer if their injury is covered by the workers compensation program.
With a FELA claim, you must show that the railroad company was at least partially at-fault for the underlying incident that led to the illness or injury. However, the damages workers can collect are far more extensive than what can be recovered through the workers compensation system.
An injured railroad worker can recover damages for:
- Medical expenses;
- Lost earnings;
- Loss of earning capacity;
- Physical pain and suffering;
- Mental and emotional distress;
- Permanent (full or partial) disability;
- Death benefits (in the event of a work-related fatality).
The FELA Claims Process
Filing a FELA claim can be a complex and confusing process. This is one of many reasons we recommend at least discussing your injury with an experienced railroad injury lawyer before moving forward in the process. The railroad company is motivated to pay out as little as possible for your illness or injury, and they will do everything they can to minimize their liability. With strong legal counsel in your corner, you can be confident that you will be in the best possible position to recover full and fair compensation.
There are several phases of the FELA claims process:
You Report the Illness or Injury
As soon as you become aware of your illness or injury, you should file a report with your supervisor. An accident report form should be filled out per your union agreement which requires you to provide details of the incident. Fill this report out carefully and be sure to include all dangerous or hazardous work conditions and defective tools and/or equipment that may have contributed to your injury. Also make sure to list all witnesses who may have seen what happened, and if possible, take multiple photographs of the scene of the event to help substantiate your report. Remember, this report will be used in your FELA claim or lawsuit, so be thorough and stay truthful. Once you file a report, you should consult with an experienced FELA claims attorney to review your case and go over your legal options.
The Claims Agent Contacts You
Shortly after you report your illness or injury, you will be contacted by the claims agent for the railroad company. It is important to understand that the claims agent represents the railroad, and their interests are not aligned with yours or those of your family. Their job is to settle the case as quickly as they can and pay out as little as possible. They will typically be very friendly with you in the beginning and try to convince you that they are on your side. They may even advise you that you do not need an attorney. The claims agent hopes to contact you before you have been fully informed of your legal rights and options. If you have already retained an attorney at this point, your attorney will deal directly with the claims agent.
The Railroad Company Investigates your Claim
After the claim is filed, the railroad company does their investigation into the injury and how it occurred. During the investigation phase, the railroad company may ask for a written or recorded statement. You are not required to give them such a statement, and you should not do so without the advice of your lawyer. Railroad companies are also known to hire private investigators to videotape injured workers and gather evidence that can be used in their defense. Be mindful of the possibility that you might be surveilled. Follow your doctor’s orders, and do not participate in any physical activities without your doctor’s approval. While the railroad company is investigating, your attorney will conduct their own investigation to determine what exactly happened, who was at fault, and the extent of your injuries.
You and the Railroad Company enter into Settlement Negotiations
Once all the evidence is collected and the extent of your injuries are fully known, your lawyer will present an initial demand/settlement letter to the railroad company. From there, the parties negotiate back and forth until they arrive at an amount that is fair to you and fully compensates you for your injuries. If a settlement is reached, this is the final step in the process. If the railroad company is not willing to negotiate in good faith however, then we move on to the next step.
If the Claim is not Settled, you File a FELA Lawsuit
Your attorney will do everything possible to settle the claim for full and fair compensation without the need for litigation. Litigation is costlier for both sides, so it is always in everyone’s best interests to avoid it. That said, negotiations sometimes break down, and the only alternative may be to file a lawsuit against the railroad company. When preparing the lawsuit, your lawyer will assess the case and decide which venue to bring the legal action. The case can be filed in state or federal court, and it can be filed in the state in which the injury occurred, the state in which the railroad company is incorporated, or the state in which the railroad company’s primary place of business is located.
After the lawsuit has been filed, the parties exchange documents and information in what is known as the “discovery” phase. During this stage, settlement negotiations may continue. And in fact, the realization that a trial is imminent may sometimes motivate the railroad company to come back with a better settlement offer. The parties may also choose to voluntarily settle the case through some form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), such as mediation. In some cases, a judge may even order the parties to go to mediation or a settlement conference in order to resolve the case without a trial.
The Case Goes to Trial
If no pretrial agreement has been reached and the case has not been dismissed through a motion by either side, the trial begins. With FELA cases, parties may choose to have the trial by jury. During the trial, the attorneys for both sides present evidence, call witnesses, and argue their case. Trials can last from a day or two up to a couple weeks or more, depending on the complexity of the case, the number of witnesses that need to be called, and other factors. After both sides have presented their arguments and rested their cases, the judge or jury renders their decision.
Speak with a Seasoned FELA Claims Lawyer
Filing a FELA claim allows injured railroad workers to recover damages. Handling the claim on your own, however, may not be the best strategy for maximizing your recovery. According to Transportation Research Board Special Report 241, only 20% of railroad workers end up hiring an attorney for their injury claim, but those 20% end up collecting 70% of the overall compensation that is paid out. If you or a loved one was seriously injured while working in the railroad industry, do not settle for less than what you deserve.
At Burge and Burge, we have extensive experience successfully representing injured railroad workers with FELA claims. Our lawyers have in depth knowledge of this area of the law, and we are able to help railroad workers in all 50 states who have become injured on the job. There is a three-year statute of limitations on FELA claims, so it is best to get us involved as early in the process as possible.
For a free consultation with one of our attorneys, call our office today at 205-251-9000 or toll free at 800-633-3733. You may also send us a message through our online contact form.