Understanding 6 Key Differences Between FELA And Workers Compensation

In the early 20th century, American railroads faced a crisis. On the job injuries were on the rise, and they had trouble attracting new workers. In order to protect railroad employees, Congress passed the first Federal Employer’s Liability Act in 1906. The Supreme Court struck down the original law, but a new version in 1908 stood up to legal challenges.

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Key Differences Between FELA and Workers Compensation

In the years since FELA’s passage, the law has come under intense criticism for its worker-friendly protections. Railroad companies lobbied Congress to replace FELA with workers compensation, but industry unions successfully fought the changes.

Unions and railroad workers favor FELA over traditional workers compensation because FELA awards are typically higher and more comprehensive than workers compensation. A railroad injury lawyer can demonstrate six critical differences between the two systems.

Compensation Limits

The difference that stands out the most is the amount of compensation that can be awarded. In a workers compensation claim, Illinois uses a fixed table of compensation for all injuries. For instance, if an employee suffers the total loss of use of a thumb, that employee will receive 76 weeks worth of compensation, based on a calculation of two thirds of the employee’s wage at the time of the injury. Amputation of an arm can bring 323 weeks of compensation, while total deafness is compensated at 215 weeks. Partial disability pays at 50 percent of the total disability rate.

Under FELA, there are no compensation limits. A railroad injury lawyer may seek current and future wages, as well as non-economic damages for a client. Juries are instructed to award damages based on the proportionality of the injury, but have few restrictions outside of the basic instructions.

Types of Compensation

Workers compensation is primarily designed to cover medical expenses and provide income while an employee recovers. As a result, the types of compensation are limited to those two areas.

The expansion of FELA’s coverage brings pain and suffering, emotional anguish, and loss of enjoyment under the compensation umbrella. A railroad injury lawyer may be able to seek punitive damages against the company for gross negligence.

Types of Injuries

Workers compensation statutes severely limit the types of injuries that may be considered for payment. In order to qualify, an injury must be directly related to the job, or caused in some way be neglect on the part of the employer. Traumatic injuries, such as broken bones or muscle injuries, and repetitive motion injuries are all covered by workers compensation.

FELA rules broaden the types of injuries to include occupational diseases and harm done to existing medical conditions. Hearing loss is a common injury for which a railroad injury lawyer will seek payment.

Burden of Proof

Though most of the rules for FELA favor workers, FELA is more strict when defining the burden of proof. In a workers compensation case, a worker may receive compensation if it is proven the injury occurred on the job, or as a result of work related activities. The court assigns no fault in the case; the injury was the result of an accident.

FELA requires plaintiffs to prove some degree of direct negligence on the part of the railroad. A railroad injury lawyer must show the jury proof that a lack of care by the railroad led to the employee’s injury, so freak accidents don’t always qualify for compensation. The addition of “comparative negligence” standards do allow workers to receive compensation, even when they are partially to blame for the injury. The jury assigns a percentage of the negligence to the employee, then reduces the award by that amount.


Workers compensation hearings, because they are hearings and not official lawsuits, are handled by workers compensation boards. FELA cases, on the other hand, must progress through the state or federal court system. This difference in venue plays a significant role in the timetable for compensation in both situations.

Workers compensation claims begin payment as soon as the claim is approved. The fee schedule and simplified hearing process streamline claims through the system. Since FELA claims move through the court system, no compensation can be paid until the claim is settled, either by a jury or out of court.


Oversight is an underlying problem with workers compensation that FELA addresses. The workers compensation system allows states to set their own rules about benefits, waiting periods, and the type of injuries covered. Unfortunately, this means radically different compensation awards for very similar injuries.

FELA is a federal law, so it applies the same rules and procedures in every state. Awards will vary because of jury composition and temperament, but the federal standards do make compensation more uniform across the industry.

Employees receive greater awards under FELA rules than they do workers compensation in as many as 90 percent of cases, but to pursue a FELA claim, employees need an experienced railroad injury lawyer.