What is the Federal Employers Liability Act?

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  • Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2019
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Enacted in 1906, the Federal Employers Liability Act was one of the first mandates on employment law passed by the United States Congress. The goal of the act was to provide compensation to railroad employees in the event of injury as well as protect railroaders from general misconduct and negligence by the companies for which they worked. The Federal Employers Liability Act is overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration under Title 45 of the United States Code, the set of laws that also supports the Railroad Retirement Board.

Problems with the railroad industry were first addressed by the federal government in 1889 as the industry continued to expand westward, becoming one of the largest in the country. President Benjamin Harrison took the opportunity to focus on the importance of the railroaders and the dangers they experience, comparing them to soldiers in conflict. Over the next few decades, more workers were injured and killed, culminating in the major court case of Johnson v. Southern Pacific Co. in 1904. Led by United States Representative Henry Flood and the unilateral actions of a number of states, the Federal Employers Liability Act was passed. However, it immediately faced challenge by the industry and was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, forcing Congress to pass a second measure with modified wording in 1908.


The main purpose of the Federal Employers Liability Act is to provide a way for railroad workers to receive financial compensation in the event of injury or death. However, unlike traditional workers' compensation laws, the Federal Employers Liability Act requires the railroader to sue the actual company and relies on a jury to decide what level of payout the worker deserves. In addition, the railroad must be found negligent in its actions in order for a required payment to be made.

According to federal law, an employee can specifically sue the railroad company for a variety of different losses. Included among these are all lost wages, both past and future, and medical expenses not covered by insurance. Additional compensation can be paid for pain and suffering, permanent injury and emotional distress. This means that a railroader who sues his or her company due to a negligent action may receive a much higher payout than those seeking traditional workers' compensation, which standardizes injury payments.


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