Comparative negligence played a significant role in how a BNSF Railway worker’s final injury award was determined. Although the jury returned a verdict of over $7.1 million, the worker only received almost $3.5 million for injuries he suffered while working at a rail yard because he was determined to have been 51% at fault for the accident. Unlike in traditional workers’ compensation cases where injured workers receive benefits regardless of fault, comparative negligence is used to determine an injured train worker’s eventual recovery under FELA.
Federal Employees Liability Act and Comparative Negligence
When a railroad worker is injured, he may seek compensation under the Federal Employees Liability Act (FELA). A defining aspect of FELA is the doctrine of comparative negligence which holds that any workers’ eventual recovery must be reduced by the level of culpability he shares in his own injury. In the recent case, the BNSF worker was injured because a rail car rolled onto his foot, crushing it, and eventually resulting in the amputation of the leg beneath the knee. A verdict of $7.1 million was returned by the jury, but it was reduced by the amount of culpability for which the jury found the plaintiff responsible.
FELA awards are dependent on the culpability of the railroad company. The FELA system contrasts sharply with workers’ compensation, the system under which most American workers can seek financial compensation. Under workers’ compensation, any employee who is injured on the job receives financial support for medical bills, lost wages, and other expenses resulting from the workplace injury – regardless of fault. In exchange, the worker agrees never to sue the employer.
Under FELA, railroad employees may only recover if the railroad was partially responsible for the workers’ injuries. Even if a railroad worker is severely injured or killed, he receives no financial recovery unless the injury is partially the result of the railroad’s actions.
Ascertaining Responsibility and Measuring Damages
In a FELA case, the court ascertains the relative degree of fault for the parties and the plaintiff’s potential recovery is limited by their comparative fault. For example, if the employee is found to be 10 percent responsible for the accident, the worker may recover 90 percent of the judgment.
Workers may recover damages for the following:
- Pain and suffering;
- Lost wages; and
- Medical costs.