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Supreme Court places severe limits on FELA claims

The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) was passed in 1908 as a way to give railroad workers compensation if they are injured on the job. For decades, claims made under FELA have been allowed to proceed in any jurisdiction in which the railroad company conducts a significant portion of its business. That flexibility assured injured workers that they could bring their case forward in a state that was easily accessible to them and which had the experience to properly deal with the unique aspects of a FELA claim. Now, however, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has upended that practice and handed a major victory to railroad companies concerning where FELA claims can be heard.

Overturned Montana decision

The Supreme Court case concerned two claims made against railroad giant BNSF, which is based in Texas. The two employees who brought the claims against BNSF did so in Montana. Neither injury occurred in Montana nor was either claimant residing in that state. The Montana Supreme Court allowed the claims to be heard there because railroad workers have special protections under FELA that allow them to file out-of-state claims so long as the railroad does business in the state where the claim is being made. As the Spokesman-Review reports, about 10 percent of BNSF's operations are conducted in Montana.

That Montana Supreme Court decision, however, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. In an 8-1 ruling, the nation's top court ruled that merely conducting business in a particular state was not enough reason to bring a claim against a railroad company in that state. Instead, the court effectively ruled that a claim can only be made against a railroad company in a state where the railroad is headquartered, where the plaintiff was injured, or where the plaintiff resides.

“Jurisdictional windfall” for railroads

The lone dissenting voice on the U.S. Supreme Court was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who called the decision a “jurisdictional windfall” for railroad companies. Her criticism was that the decision will force plaintiffs who may have been injured by the railroad company's actions or negligence to pursue their claims in courts that are hard to reach or which have little experience handling FELA claims. Other critics of the decision described it as an extra burden that injured workers will have to carry on top of their injuries.

Making a FELA claim

The above case should serve as a reminder of why injured railway workers should contact a personal injury attorney who is experienced in handling FELA claims. As rules concerning such claims get tighter, it is imperative that claimants have an attorney representing them who knows best how to pursue whatever compensation that claimant may ultimately be entitled to.

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