Railroad employees fall into a special category of workers in the U.S. Long before Georgia passed its workers’ compensation laws, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). FELA is a comprehensive set of laws that govern railroad employees’ rights. FELA applies to every railroad worker who is working for a common carrier in interstate commerce.

To understand FELA’s far-reaching application, one must understand the definition of two key phrases. The first is common carrier. Common carrier is a legal term that means the employer is engaged in the business of transporting goods or people for compensation. Thus defined, common carrier encompasses almost every possible railroad setting. Interstate commerce is another legal term defined broadly in U.S. jurisprudence. Defining interstate commerce is important because, under the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. legislature has the authority to pass laws that involve commerce that moves from state to state. Since trains move across state lines or they move goods that are in the stream of commerce, railroads are engaged in interstate commerce.

Defining those two terms is important because it helps understand why FELA pre-empts Georgia workers’ compensation laws. Preemption means that a worker cannot seek compensation through Georgia’s workers’ compensation laws for an injury a railroad employee suffered on the job. In other words, the employee has no choice but to file a claim for damages under FELA if he or she wants to pursue compensation for a railroad injury or fatality.

In many ways, Georgia’s workers’ compensation laws are much more favorable when compared to FELA. In Georgia and every other state in the U.S., receiving workers’ compensation benefits requires no proof of wrongdoing on behalf of the employer. There are many requirements to be sure, but proving that your employer was negligent is not one of them. By contrast, to obtain a financial award under FELA, a railroad employee must show that his or her employer was negligent in some way.

The amount of evidence required to succeed on a claim under FELA is not very high. The employee, or if deceased, the employee’s family, may pursue damages for medical bills, lost wages, loss of future earning capacity, pain and suffering, as well as compensation for amputated limbs or permanent injury. Georgia’s workers’ compensation laws do not permit recovery for many of damages, including pain and suffering.

Another critical difference between FELA and Georgia workers’ compensation law lies in the railroad’s ability to defend the employee’s claim by arguing that the employee contributed to his or her injury. Therefore, the amount of award can be reduced by the amount of negligence committed by the injured employee. The employee’s comparative negligence is irrelevant under Georgia’s workers’ compensation laws.

The time to file a claim under FELA is restricted. Injured employees, or their families, must file a case in court within three (3) years from the date the action accrued. Therefore, time is of the essence and an injured railroad worker should not delay in consulting with a Georgia FELA attorney.

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Atchison, T. & SFR Co. v. Buell, 480 US 557 – Supreme Court 1987