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Federal Employers' Liability Act: Introduction

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The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), codified at 45 U.S.C.S. § 51-60, governs the right of railroad employees injured, sickened or killed in the course of their employment through an employer’s negligence to sue the employer for damages.  45 U.S.C. § 51 (2006).  The personal representative a railroad employee killed in the course of employment may bring suit against the employer for the benefit of the deceased employee’s surviving spouse, children, parents, or any dependant relative.  id.  A railroad employer will be liable for an employee’s injuries resulting in whole or in part from the employer’s negligence.  45 U.S.C. § 52 (2006).  The Act prohibits an employee’s recovery to be denied on the basis of contributory negligence, but the proportion of negligence attributable to the employee may reduce any damage award by that amount.  45 U.S.C.A. § 53 (2006).   There can be no finding of contributory negligence if it is shown that an employer’s violation of a railway safety statute played any role in an employee’s injury.  id.  Employees cannot be held to have assumed the risk of employment when an employer’s negligence has contributed to an employee’s injury, or when the employer has violated a safety statute.  45 U.S.C. § 54 (2006).  Federal cases have held that the causation standard for FELA claims is lower than that of common law negligence claims.  Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 506-507 (1957); Accord, Ely v. Reading Co., 424 F.2d 758, 726 (C.A.3 1970); but see Norfolk Southern Ry. Co. v.  Sorrell, 549 U.S. 158, 173 (2007), (Souter, J, concurring) (Souter, J., argues that Rogers did not alter the common law standard of causation, joined by Scalia, J. and Alito, J.); see also McBride v. CSX Transp., Inc., 598 F.3d 388 (C.A.7 Ill. 2010) (citing Rogers in holding that the FELA alters the standard of causation; discusses Rogers and Sorrell), aff’d, CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, 131 S.Ct. 2630 (June 23, 2011) (opinion by Ginsburg, J.; Thomas, J., joining in part; Roberts, C.J., Scalia, J., Kennedy, J., and Alito, J., dissenting).  An employer may not attempt to exempt itself from liability under the Act by contract or other such device.  45 U.S.C. § 55 (2006).  FELA actions must be brought within three years of the date the cause of action accrued.  45 U.S.C. § 56 (2006).


The Act provides that state courts hold concurrent jurisdiction over FELA actions with the federal courts.  id.  Thus, a FELA action may be brought in state or federal court, and a litigant has a wide choice of potential forums.  FELA actions brought in state court may not be removed to federal court.  28 U.S.C. § 1445(a) (2006).  The procedural rules of a state court tort action will apply when a FELA action is brought in that state’s courts.  Harding v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 620 A.2d 1185, 1188 (Pa.Super. 1993).  But even in state courts, the substantive federal law will control the rights and obligations of the parties to a FELA action.  St. Louis Southwestern Ry. Co. v. Dickerson, 470 U.S. 409, 411 (1985).  


The FELA is a statutory modification of the common law, but FELA actions remain based in the common law principles of negligence.  Common law tort principles are vital to understanding FELA actions, and some basic resources on this subject are listed below.  Researchers will also need to be aware of specific state tort laws that may be relevant to additional tort claims joined in FELA actions.  Researchers should also be aware of a client’s status under the Railway Labor Act and the client’s eligibility (if any) for benefits pursuant to relevant state worker’s compensation laws, among other issues.


Railroad employers that are state-controlled entities were once covered by the FELA based on the presumption that states had waived their sovereign immunity to suits for damages through the voluntary act of engaging in the business of interstate rail commerce.  Parden v. Terminal R. Co. of Ala. Docks Dept., 377 U.S. 184 (1964); Hilton v. South Carolina Public Railways Com’n., 502 U.S. 197 (1991).  But United States Supreme Court decisions now hold that any such waiver of a state’s sovereign immunity must be clear and explicit.  College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board, et al., 527 U.S. 666, 680-81 (1999) (overruling Parden); see also Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999) (recognizing overruling of Parden and narrowing ruling of Hilton to the “proposition that certain States had consented to be sued by injured workers covered by the FELA, at least in their own courts.”  Alden, at 737-8).  Thus, an employee of a railroad operated by a state entity cloaked by the state’s sovereign immunity may need to demonstrate that a waiver of such immunity has been explicitly made in order to sue that entity pursuant to the FELA.  See Januchowski v. Northern Indiana Commuter Transp. Dist., 905 N.E.2d 1041 (Ind. App. 2009) (Indiana Torts Claim Act constituted waiver of state’s immunity to FELA actions in state courts).


This LibGuide is designed as a study supplement for Villanova Law School students, and nothing herein should be considered to constitute legal advice.  Research resources featured here are available through the Villanova School of Law’s Law Library.  This guide is by no means comprehensive, but is meant to provide a point of departure for law students and researchers seeking information on the FELA.  Certain electronic resources noted herein are freely available on the Internet; other resources are available through the Law Library’s webpage, and may require a password to access if the researcher is working in a location other than Villanova Law School.  Access to Westlaw, Lexis Advance and Bloomberg Law will require a password-protected user account.  Consult a Reference Librarian if you need assistance in accessing any of the Library’s electronic databases.


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Robert Hegadorn
Villanova University School of Law

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