During the Industrial Age of the 1800s, railroads were instrumental in delivering goods and providing a way of passage for Americans to relocate across the country. Cross-sections of railway network spread through the south and the northeast. The total railroad mileage across American reached over 129,000 in 1890.
But while the majority of the country benefited from the expansion and proliferation of railroads and railway systems, the workers who built the network often suffered devastating injuries that altered their lives and the lives of their families. One source cites President Benjamin Harrison in 1889 as saying in a comparison with railway workers:
“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 time of war.”
The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) was passed in 1908 and though it has been challenged repeatedly by the railway industry, congress has kept it intact. fela law allows a railway worker to sue a railway company in the event of an injury when the worker is not covered by standard worker compensation laws. When doing so, a railway worker must prove that the company has been negligent.
An example of a type of case that has been taken to court under fela law is the issue of toxic solvents, which are hazardous chemicals that can lead to a certain kind of brain dysfunction called toxic encephalopathy. Toxic encephalopathy can cause permanent brain damage and if often very difficult to diagnose.
There are some statistics that may impact fela law as well:
fela lawyers, which are sometimes referred to in a more general sense as railroad lawyers, often take on these kinds of cases. CSX, the largest railroad in the eastern United States, has settled at least 466 solvent claims for upwards of $35 million.
Although the railway industry has declined in prominence due to the explosion of the automobile and airplane industries, there are still many who work for railroad companies and deal with potentially dangerous conditions.