Companies that Don’t Warn of Dangers Responsible under FELA

The rejection of a 2015 appeal by the Illinois Central Railroad Company highlights the rights that employees have to a safe work environment, and to be properly warned of workplace hazards. The appeal came after a jury awarded over $1.3 million in the case of Jacob Lilienthal, a deceased former railroad employee. Lilienthal and his wife Jane first sued his former employer in 2005, and she continued the lawsuit after her husband’s death from lung cancer in 2009.

The Federal Employers Liability Act is the only way for railroad employees to recover damages from their employer. It was established in 1908 to fight against high rates of death and injury among railroad workers. Some people confuse FELA with worker’s compensation, but they are much different. Railroad employees do not take part in the Social Security system or worker’s compensation.

In many ways, FELA is superior to worker’s compensation because of the amounts that an employee can recover. For instance, with a FELA claim and employee can recover full lost wages. They do need to show that the railroad was at least partially negligent in providing them a safe working environment, however. In a case similar to Mr. Lilienthal’s, a Chicago  personal injury and wrongful death attorney has the opportunity to be very helpful in recovering damages.

Railroad Responsibilities under FELA

FELA was established to give some protections to railroad workers. As such, there are certain requirements for the railroad to meet in order to provide their employees with a safe workplace. These include:

  • Reasonable access to safe working conditions free from safety hazards
  • Warnings about safety hazards, even if these should be obvious to the employee
  • Inspection of the workplace for dangers and risks.

In the case of Mr. Lilienthal, the railroad had known since the 1930s about the dangers of working with asbestos. During his 35 years with the company in Illinois and Kentucky, he was exposed to asbestos in a number of situations. He was not given proper equipment to protect himself, or the proper warnings about what the railroad knew to be a danger. Asbestos was also handled in the workplace in a way that was obviously unsafe upon inspection.

Mr. Lilienthal’s case highlights the responsibility of the railroads to provide for their worker’s safety. Interestingly, he was an admitted pack-a-day smoker for his entire time with the railroad, and afterwards. Given that he died of lung cancer, the railroad tried to argue that the cause of his death was from his own fault as a smoker. And while this did reduce the final amount of the damages, the jury still assigned the railroad the majority of the blame for his illness and early death. So even proving some negligence on the employer’s part can be very powerful in FELA cases.

Restrictions on Employee Claims 

Railroad employees and former employees who try to collect compensation from an employer do have some responsibilities and restrictions of their own. The biggest restriction for employees seeking damages is the time limit on when they can make their claim. From the time of their injury, they have only three years to file a claim. In the case of one time injury, this is not so difficult to determine. When the injury takes place over time, as it did in the case of Mr. Lilienthal, the railroad can gain the upper hand in a case by arguing about timelines.

Due to the time limits on filing FELA claims, it is really important that railroad workers document injuries on the job, and seek treatment for conditions like repetitive strain injuries. Conditions that can later impact the length of someone’s career or have a negative impact on health need to be documented from the first moment that they begin to have a negative effect on a railroad employee’s ability to work.

Railroads and their lobbyists will continue to try to reduce the power of FELA at the state and federal level. At the same time, they will bring out experts to try to argue against a Chicago wrongful death attorney when presented with evidence of not meeting their responsibilities to their employees. But an employee covered under FELA has the opportunity to recover damages covering many different areas. These could include past and future suffering and loss of happiness, lost wages, and healthcare expenses.

When compared to the standard rights given to employees, FELA provides the possibility of increased benefits to those hurt on the job. But the age of FELA, the unique conditions that railroad workers work under and the desire of railroads to avoid paying damages in these cases means that railroad workers and their families need to follow the proper steps in order to receive the benefits that they deserve.