Happy 100th birthday, FELA

April 8, 2008

By Mike Futhey
International President

A railroader’s most cherished workplace safety assurance is the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), which turns 100 years old this month.

Railroading is among the most dangerous occupations in America. In an industry that too often puts profits ahead of safety, the FELA is a powerful prod to improved workplace safety.

“There should be legislation to secure pecuniary compensation to workmen suffering from accidents,” said President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907, in urging Congress to pass the FELA.

Indeed, in the year leading up to the FELA’s passage, 4,353 railroaders were killed, and 62,689 more railroad employees were injured, according to data reported in 1908 by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Years earlier, when viewing similar appalling data, President Benjamin Harrison declared, “It is a reproach to our civilization that any class of American workmen should, in the pursuit of a necessary and useful vocation, be subjected to a peril of life and limb as great as that of a soldier in war.”

President Harrison was correct to be appalled by the carnage. History records that while train and engine-service employees then constituted just 20 percent of the railroad workforce, they accounted for some 60 percent of all fatalities and injuries. In 1889, for every 117 trainmen employed, one was killed; and for every 12 employed, one was injured.

Although some states had passed legislation allowing injured workers to seek compensation for workplace injuries, it was recognized that railroad employees were engaged in interstate commerce on trains that frequently moved across state lines, creating significant legal hurdles.

With encouragement from UTU predecessor unions, Congress passed, and President Roosevelt signed, the FELA on April 22, 1908.

The FELA made railroads liable if an employee injury or death results in whole or in part from the negligence of any of its officers, agents or employees, or from any defect or insufficiency in equipment or roadbed. Contributory negligence on the part of the injured worker does not bar a recovery under the FELA.

The Supreme Court observed that the FELA is intended to “impel the carrier to avoid and prevent negligent acts and omissions.”

The Supreme Court also upheld the right of unions to advise injured workers to obtain expert legal advice, and the right of unions to designate legal counsel possessing specialized knowledge in railroad operations and the FELA.

In fact, the FELA prohibits railroads from retaliating against employees who provide Designated Legal Counsel with factual information on injuries to fellow employees, or who testify in support of injured workers.

When the carriers and their anti-labor friends in Congress made one of their many unsuccessful attempts to repeal the FELA in 1995, the U.S. General Accounting Office — known as Congress’s “watchdog,” issued a report concluding that the FELA is an effective law, working as intended.

“The FELA was designed to put on the railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes, and lives which it consumed in its operation,” wrote Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1948.

If you are injured on the job, the FELA and your UTU Designated Legal Counsel are the best friends you and your family have. These successful trial lawyers are specialists in handling FELA claims, and are fully experienced in dealing with railroad claim agents and railroad lawyers.

A listing of UTU Designated Legal Counsel — attorneys who answer to the UTU — is provided at www.utu.org (by clicking on “Designated Legal Counsel” in the blue tile box on the left of the home page), or a listing may be obtained from local union officers or your general chairpersons.

The UTU News also is featuring photos and information — two each month — on our Designated Legal Counsel. Look for that feature in each issue when it arrives in the mail.

Carriers continue to lobby Congress to repeal the FELA — each attempt so far blunted by the UTU, and with credit for the successful defense of the FELA rooted in member contributions to the UTU PAC.

Join me in wishing the FELA a happy 100th birthday.

Even better, consider making a special contribution to the UTU PAC to help us continue our vigilance in defending the FELA.