Unlike worker’s compensation statutes, the FELA requires the injured worker to prove that the injury was caused, in whole or in part, by fault or negligence on the part of the railroad or one of its employees. If the railroad is not at fault, then the injured worker cannot recover money damages. This is why it is important for any employee who is involved in an accident to evaluate the conduct of the railroad and report the accident immediately on the accident report and identify negligence and/or defective equipment, if possible.
The railroad may not transfer its obligation to provide its workers with a safe workplace under the FELA to anyone, even when the job requires the worker to work at an industry, stay at a hotel, or ride in van to or from the work site. If injured at one of these locations, the worker might also have a state-law case against the industry, hotel, or van company in addition to an FELA case against the railroad. It is important to remember that the statute of limitations under the FELA is 3 years. This means that a claimant has 3 years from the date of injury to file his suit in court; any state-law claim against a third party will be covered by the state statute of limitations which is usually less that 3 years and varies from state to state.
There are exceptions to the requirement that the worker prove negligence. If the railroad violates the Federal Safety Appliance Act or the Locomotive Inspection Act, which require the railroad to provide certain very specific safety equipment on cars and engines, then the employer is automatically at fault, and it does not matter if the employee was negligent at the time of the injury. Whether there is a statutory violation is a fact-specific question and probably requires consultation with a lawyer who is knowledgeable about both the facts surrounding the injury and the law under the FELA.
Damages in an FELA case are reduced if both the railroad and the worker are found to be at fault or negligent. For example, if a claim is worth $500,000, but the worker is 70% at fault, then he can recover 30% of the value of the claim or $150,000 in this example. It is, therefore, very important when filling out an injury report or giving a statement to the railroad that you do not get tricked or persuaded into admitting that the incident was your fault.