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Key Doctrines to Raise in Defending FELA Cases

Article by Holly Olarczuk-Smith, Esq.

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) is a federal statute that provides a cause of action against a railroad employer that negligently injured a railroad employee. Filing a FELA lawsuit is the exclusive remedy for recovery from a railroad employer for an employee’s injury resulting from the railroad’s negligence. As a result, successfully defending against a FELA lawsuit can insulate railroad employers from liability, and employers should work with their defense counsel to identify all viable arguments to raise. This includes fundamental doctrines that are based on errors, delays, and other issues related to a plaintiff’s filing. When railroad employers have these arguments available, asserting them successfully can result in pretrial dismissal of plaintiff’s claims. Some examples of well-recognized arguments in FELA cases include:

Lack of Standing

FELA creates two causes of action in the event of a death of a railroad employee: a survival action and a wrongful death action. To initiate a viable action under FELA in the event of the death of a railroad worker, the action must be filed by the personal representative on behalf of the deceased employee’s estate. Under FELA, an individual who is not the decedent’s personal representative lacks standing to file any action against the railroad employer. If anyone other than a personal representative files a complaint, the complaint may be subject to dismissal.

Time Bar

Under FELA, a personal injury claim must be brought within three years of its accrual. The accrual of a personal injury claim is determined from when the employee knows or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known of both an injury and its potential cause.

For a wrongful death claim, the three-year time limit begins on the date of death. There is an exception to this rule. If the employee fails to bring a personal injury action within the three-year limitations period during the employee’s lifetime, there exists no “continuance of a right in the injured employee at the time of his death[,]”, and his/her personal representative is barred from bringing a wrongful death action as a result. Flynn v. New York. N.H. & H.R. Co., 283 U.S. 53, 56 (1931). For example, an employee is diagnosed with an injury that is attributed to his railroad employment in 2015. The employee does not file a personal injury claim and he passes away in 2019. The personal representative files a wrongful death lawsuit under FELA in 2020. Even though the wrongful death claim was filed within three years of the date of death, it is barred and subject to dismissal under Flynn because the personal injury claim expired during the employee’s lifetime.

Judicial Estoppel in Bankruptcy

When a plaintiff receives a bankruptcy discharge and fails to disclose a potential FELA claim as an asset during the bankruptcy proceeding, the FELA action may be subject to dismissal because pursuing a claim that was not disclosed as an asset in a previous bankruptcy proceeding creates an inconsistency sufficient to support judicial estoppel.
Additionally, some courts have held that when an employee has an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding, the employee has no standing to bring the FELA action because the bankruptcy proceeding extinguishes an employee’s legal rights and interests in any pending litigation and transfers those rights to the bankruptcy trustee, acting on behalf of the bankruptcy estate. In this scenario, only the bankruptcy trustee has standing to pursue the FELA action belonging to the bankruptcy estate once the bankruptcy petition has been filed.

Res Judicata for Multiple Lawsuits

FELA gives plaintiffs the option to file their lawsuits in state or federal court. However, this provision is not intended to give plaintiffs two bites at the apple.

For example, a plaintiff files a FELA lawsuit in federal court and the action is later dismissed due to lack of personal jurisdiction. Later, plaintiff files a state court action raising the very same FELA claim that was raised in the federal action. Plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the state action with prejudice. Plaintiff then files a timely appeal challenging the personal jurisdiction dismissal of the federal action. The federal appeal, which is based on the same FELA claim that was already dismissed with prejudice in state court, is barred by res judicata.