FELA Claim for Deceased Railroad Employee

The Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 USC §51 et seq., is a federal law that provides damages to railroad employees injured because of a railroad's negligence during their employment. What happens to a claim under the FELA when the employee passes away before the case is fully resolved? The FELA specifically provides standing to both the employee and "in case of the death of such employee" to his or her "personal representative." A recent case from the Northern District of Alabama discusses the procedure to be followed in such cases.

In Jenkins v. Norfolk Southern Railway (N.D. Alabama, 2021), 2:20-CV-483, Paula Jenkins filed an FELA claim on behalf of her deceased father for damages resulting from injuries suffered during her father's employment for the railroad. Jenkins identified herself in the complaint as the "personal representative" of her father. In order to be legally designated as the personal representative of her deceased father, it was necessary for Jenkins to open an estate in a state probate court and be appointed administrator of the estate. She failed to do so before the complaint was filed, however. The Court held that to have proper standing to file a suit under the FELA, a plaintiff must be appointed as the personal representative before the expiration of the statute of limitations and before the matter is filed in court. Standing is a jurisdictional prerequisite to any claim filed in court; the focus of the question of standing is whether the plaintiff named in the lawsuit is the proper party to bring the action. Jenkins did not have standing because she was not officially appointed by the probate court before filing her lawsuit, so the claim was dismissed.

If an employee dies after the case has been timely filed but before it has been completed, the court permits a reasonable time for an estate to be opened and a personal representative to be substituted as the plaintiff.

This case highlights the importance to railroad employees of making sure that their spouse and family know where to turn if something happens to them. Employees should rely on advice from competent attorneys familiar with the FELA. And that information should be shared with their families so they are protected in these tragic cases.

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