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OVERVIEW OF THE FELA

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 USC § 51, et seq., is a humanitarian statute intended to protect railroad workers from unsafe conditions and practices associated with their occupations.  Its purpose has been interpreted as to adjust and allocate the cost of work-related injuries, an inescapable expense of the railroad industry, between the worker and the railroad.  Sinkler v. Missouri Pacific R.R, 356 U.S. 326 (1958).  “The FELA was designed to put on the railroad industry some of the costs for legs, eyes, arms and lives which it consumed in its operations.”  Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U.S. 53, 68 (1949).  In Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R, 352 U.S. 500 at 507 (1957), the U. S. Supreme Court noted the Federal Employers’ Liability Act “was enacted because Congress was dissatisfied with the common law duty of the master to his servant.  The statute supplants that duty with the far more drastic duty of paying damages for injury or death at work due in whole or in part to the employer’s negligence … “.

The statute changed and modified the common law, and although the basis of liability is negligence, the FELA abolished the defenses of the fellow servant rule (45 U.S.C. § 51, and the doctrine of assumption of the risk.  45 U.S.C. § 54.  The FELA also provides that contributory negligence does not bar recovery but merely diminishes the amount of damages recoverable by the injured employee.  45 U.S.C. 53.  “What constitutes negligence and makes a railroad liable in damages under the FELA is a federal question, not varying in accordance with the differing conceptions of negligence applicable under state and local laws for other purposes, and is governed by the Federal Decisional Law.”:  Urie v. Thompson, 339 U.S. 163 (1949).  The basic inquiry in an FELA case is whether any negligence on the part of the railroad “played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought”.  Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R., 352 U.S. at 506.

In 1893, Congress passed the first version of what is now called the Safety Appliance Act, followed in 1911 by the Boiler Inspection Act (also referred to as the “Locomotive Inspection Act”).  The Boiler Inspection Act is now found at 49 U.S.C. § 20701, et seq., and the Safety Appliance Act at 49 U.S.C. § 20301, et seq.  These acts standardized the safety requirements for many aspects of railroad operation.  A plaintiff seeking damages under either the Safety Appliance Act or Locomotive Inspection Act need only prove a statutory violation and causation to establish liability on the part of the railroad.  Kernan v. American Dredging Co., 335 U.S. 426, 432 (1958); Carter v. Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 430, 434-35 (1949).  The violation “is itself an actionable wrong, and no way dependent upon negligence and for the proximate results of which there is liability – a liability that cannot be escaped by proof of care or diligence”.  O’Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 384, 390 (1949); see also Brady v. Terminal R.R. Assoc., 303 U.S. 10, 15 (1938).

The defenses of contributory and comparative negligence are not available in actions based on a violation of a safety statute such as the Safety Appliance Act or the Locomotive Inspection Act.  45 U.S.C. § 53.  The fact there may have been more than one cause of an injury is immaterial as long as one of the causes is attributable to the Railroad’s negligence.  Heater v. C & O, 493 F.2d 1243 (7th Cir. 1974).  A railroad employee may likewise recover from his employer for any injury caused, in whole or in part, by any negligence of a fellow employee.  Sinkler v. Missouri Pacific R.R., 356 U.S. 326 (1958).

While state law governs purely procedural matters in an FELA case, any matter of a substantive nature is controlled by federal law as developed in federal decisions. Norfolk and Western Rwy. Co. v. Liepelt, 444 U.S. 490 (1980).   The sufficiency of the evidence is a substantive matter determined by federal precedent.  Brady v. Southern Rwy. Co., 320 U.S. 476 (1943).

The right to a jury trial is “part and parcel” of the FELA.  Bailey v. Cent. V. Rwy. Co., 319 U.S. 350, 354 (1943).  The FELA’s liberal purposes must be kept in mind when deciding an issue and derogation of the FELA’s remedial purpose of providing workers with access to courts for redress of their injuries.  Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163 (1949).