Chronology of a FELA Claim
If you have suffered injury as a railroad employee and you file a claim under FELA, you may be a little unsure of what to expect. The claims process is complicated, and it can be full of unpleasant surprises and frustrating delays. Remember that there are at least two parties to every action, and that means the schedule and the events that take place can be out of your hands.
The FELA Claim Process
With that in mind, when it comes to the FELA claim process, you can at least get a general idea of what's likely to happen, and an understanding of some of the words and phrases that may come up in your claim. The following chronology provides a general idea of how your case will proceed. An experienced FELA attorney will help you understand exactly how your claim fits within this chronology. Remember, your attorney works for you, and he or she should clearly explain every step of the legal process.
Investigation & Settlement Negotiations
- After your injury, your employer and/or the railroad company will likely require that you fill out a report regarding the accident. As soon as possible after your injury, you should consult an experienced FELA attorney who will protect your rights and make sure that your claim is not compromised in the early stages.
- The railroad will then conduct an Investigation into the incident.
- Your attorney will conduct his or her own investigation into what happened, who was at fault, and the extent of your injuries.
- You, your attorney, the railroad company, and all other parties will likely discuss the settlement of your FELA claim.
Filing the Complaint
- If your claim is not settled early on, your lawyer may file a civil action on your behalf. This begins with a complaint, usually accompanied by a summons. A complaint is a legal document that lays out the claims that the plaintiff (the person or business bringing the lawsuit) has against the defendant (the person or business being sued). Typically, a lawyer will prepare this document.
- Once the complaint is filed and served, the defendant has to answer within a certain time (usually about three weeks). The answer says what portions of the complaint, if any, the defendant admits to, what the defendant contests, what defenses the defendant may have, and whether the defendant has claims against the plaintiff or any other party.
- The parties exchange documents and other information about the issues relevant to the litigation, by a process called discovery. Discovery can take three forms: written questions (interrogatories); document production; and depositions, which are formally transcribed and sworn statements taken in front of a court reporter or other court officer.
- Sometimes, the parties can voluntarily resolve all their issues through Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) such as mediation or a negotiated settlement. Often in FELA claims in which a lawsuit has been filed, the judge will order that the parties go to mediation and hold mandatory settlement conferences in an effort to resolve the claim before trial.
- In many cases, one or both of the parties will try to get rid of the case, or a portion of it, by motion. Basically, the parties present to the court those issues that are not in dispute, either because the parties agree as to the facts, or because application of the law to the facts dictates a result.
- If the parties do not reach an agreement, and if the matter is not disposed of by motion, the case will go to Trial. In FELA cases, a party can choose to have a jury.
- At trial, the attorneys present evidence and arguments for each side, and the judge or jury decides the unresolved issues. Once the judge or jury has reached a decision, the judge will order that judgment be entered for the party who wins.
- Either or both parties can appeal a judge's decision to a higher court. But it's unusual for an appeals court to overturn a judge's decision. Also, remember that settlements usually cannot be appealed if both parties agree to their terms.
It is difficult to say how long all these steps will take in your case. The entire process can take from as little as a few months to as long as a few years. Generally speaking, the less money at stake, and the more issues that can be resolved before trial, the smoother and faster your FELA claim will go.
Questions about FELA Claims? Ask a Workers' Comp Attorney
Any legal claim involving the Federal Employees Liability Act requires a detailed understanding of the federal procedures at play. If you're a railroad employee and an accident has impacted your life, you will want to consult with an attorney experienced in these matters.