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FELA Death Benefits – After the Worst Thing Happens

Railroading is a dangerous business – there is no doubt about it. I’ve heard many people say that railroad operating rules are written in blood. But sometimes, even if you do everything right, the worst thing imaginable can still happen. Planning ahead for that possibility is the responsible thing to do, and there is no time like the present to share with your spouse or other loved ones, what they need to know in the event of a railroader’s death at work. This is especially true now, when this article is being published, as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

If a railroader dies from injuries (or illness) sustained at work, the FELA allows the deceased railroader’s “personal representative” (sometimes called an “executor” or “administrator”) to bring a lawsuit under the FELA. Only certain people are entitled to recover damages in the event of a railroader’s death. First are the surviving spouse and children of the railroader – this includes adult children. If there is no spouse or children, then the employee’s parents can recover. If there are also no parents, then the railroader’s next of kin are entitled to recover, but only if they are “dependent” on the railroader financially.

The damages available for a railroader’s death are somewhat limited, and can create unreasonable results. For example, if a young unmarried railroader is killed instantaneously by an oncoming train, there may be limited damages available for the grieving parents. Let’s look at the damages available, and then I will explain why. Here is what can be recovered for a railroader’s death:

  1. The loss of support and other financial benefits they would have received from the deceased railroader (generally speaking, this means wages, money, and benefits like health insurance);

  2. Loss of services the deceased railroader would have provided to them (generally speaking, this means household chores and child care);

  3. If the plaintiffs include minor children, the loss of the railroader’s care, attention, instruction, training, advice and guidance;

  4. Any pain and suffering experienced by railroader before they died; and

  5. The reasonable expense of medical care needed by the railroader before they died. (However, in most cases, the railroader’s medical expenses have been paid by the railroad.)

Assuming the grieving parents in my example above were employed and not relying on the railroader’s income or services, you can see how the damages they could recover would be very limited if their son or daughter was killed instantaneously and did not experience any pain or suffering. The same scenario would unfortunately apply to grieving adult children, who are no longer dependent on their parents’ wages or services. Another unreasonable result is that the emotional pain and suffering of the deceased railroader’s loved ones is not taken into account at all. The grief of those left behind is unfortunately not counted by the FELA.

It is also important to remember that, like any other FELA claim, we will have to be able to prove at least “slight negligence” on the part of the railroad in causing the death. The railroad will almost always argue that the railroader was the cause of their own death, so it is important to have attorneys who understand railroading and how the railroads will try to twist the facts against their own deceased worker. The railroad may also try to make a quick lowball offer to the grieving family to avoid litigation; again it is important for an attorney to be consulted so that family members understand the full value of their potential claim. If you have questions about any of the information discussed above, or would simply like an attorney to talk with your spouse or loved one, please contact us at 410.769.5400.

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