Prior to the F.E.L.A., injured railroad workers were subject to the common-law doctrine of negligence which made recovery of losses nearly impossible. The act eliminated or modified the following common railroad defenses:
1. Assumption of Risk
Eliminated - The 1939 amendment to the F.E.L.A. eliminated this defense by providing that an employee does not assume the risks of employment in case injury or death results, in whole or in part, from the negligence of the railroad, or when the violation of a statute enacted for the safety of employees contributed to the injury or death.
A significant case on assumption of risk is Tiller v. Atlantic Coast Line. The plaintiff, a railroad policeman who inspected seals on freight cars in order to detect tampering, was killed by a backing train. The railroad contended there could be no recovery because the nature of his job required him to work in such places and, thus, he assumed the risk. The Supreme Court held that assumption of risk was eliminated from the act by the 1939 amendment. Because of this decision, railroads are obligated to exercise due care to protect employees even against dangers normally associated with the job.
2. Negligence of Fellow Employee
Eliminated - This defense was also eliminated by the F.E.L.A., which provides that a cause of action arises from the negligence of "officers, agents, or employees" of the railroad. Consequently, when injury results from negligence of another employee, that negligence is imputed to the railroad.
3. Contributory Negligence
Modified - Under the common law, a worker whose own negligence caused or contributed to his injury could not recover damages. The F.E.L.A. adopted a pure comparative negligence standard whereby an injured worker's total damage award is reduced only to the extent that their own negligence caused or contributed to an injury. The act states, in part:
"The fact that the employee may have been guilty of contributory negligence shall not bar a recovery, but damages shall be diminished in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to such employee."
4. Proximate Cause of Injury
Modified - Before the F.E.L.A., an employee had to show that employer negligence was the most likely cause of the injuries, or the cause without which the injuries would not have occurred. Under the F.E.L.A., employer negligence need not be the proximate cause, but need only play some part in causing the worker's injury.
One significant case on this subject is Rogers v. Missouri Pacific, involving a sectionman burning weeds from the right of way. His foreman asked him to inspect a passing train for hot boxes. As the train passed, the flames were fanned toward him and, as he backed away, he fell into an open culvert. The Court ruled that:
"...the test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify, with reason, the conclusion that employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury for which damages are sought."
Another important case is Gallick v. B&O. In this "bug bite" case, the plaintiff, a switch foreman working near a stagnant pool of water on the railroad's property, was bitten on the leg by a bug. A few days later an infection developed and spread, ultimately requiring amputation of both legs. The Court held that there need be only some causal relationship between the employers' negligence and the resulting injury. The Court's ruling was that the railroad should have foreseen the possibility that a bug would inhabit the stagnant pool and that there was a causal relationship between the railroad allowing the presence of the stagnant pool and the plaintiff's injuries.