California Landmark Cases on the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA)

"The federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) is a broad remedial statute based on fault ... and is intended by Congress to protect railroad employees by doing away with certain common law tort defenses. " (Villa v. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (8th Cir. 2005) 397 F.3d 1041, 1045.) It "holds railroad employers liable for the injury or death of railroad employees that results, in whole or in part, from the railroad's negligence or that of its agents. " (Frastaci v. Vapor Corp. (2007) 158 Cal.App.4th 1389, 1395 70 Cal. Rptr. 3d 402.) A FELA action may be brought in state or federal court. (Lund v. San Joaquin Valley Railroad (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1, 5 (Lund); Miller v. Union Pacific Railroad Co. (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 451 at p. 455.) When a FELA action is instituted in state court, state law governs the resolution of procedural issues unless application of state law results in the denial of a right granted by Congress. Federal law governs the resolution of substantive issues. (Lund, supra, at pp. 6-7; Miller, supra, at p. 455.) Applying federal law to the resolution of substantive issues in FELA cases pending in state courts furthers the statute's goal of "'creating uniformity throughout the Union' with respect to railroads' financial responsibility for injuries to their employees." (Norfolk & Western R. Co. v. Liepelt (1980) 444 U.S. 490, 493, fn. 5 62 L.Ed.2d 689, 693, fn. 5, 100 S. Ct. 755.) In Miller v. Union Pacific Railroad Co, 147 Cal.App.4th 451 , the Court held that the availability of expert witness fees in a FELA action filed in state court is a "substantive" issue controlled by federal law. In so doing, the Court noted that the United States Supreme Court has characterized a litigant's ability to recover prejudgment interest in FELA cases as a "substantive" issue governed by federal law, because it "'is normally designed to make the plaintiff whole and is part of the actual damages sought to be recovered,'" "'may constitute a significant portion of an FELA plaintiff's total recovery,'" and may also "'constitute too substantial a part of a defendant's potential liability under the FELA'" to be considered merely procedural. (Miller, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 456, quoting Monessen Southwestern R. Co. v. Morgan (1988) 486 U.S. 330, 335, 336 100 L.Ed.2d 349, 358, 108 S. Ct. 1837 rejecting the application of Pennsylvania law to the recovery of prejudgment interest.) Following the Supreme Court's holding that federal law controls the availability of prejudgment interest in a state-filed FELA case, the California state high court in Lund, supra, 31 Cal.4th 1 likewise concluded that prejudgment interest is not available in a California FELA case, notwithstanding contrary state law. It observed that the goal of achieving national uniformity in personal injury actions by railroad employees against their employers "would be frustrated if FELA plaintiffs could recover prejudgment interest simply by filing their actions in state court rather than in federal court, where such recovery is precluded. Even if prejudgment interest could be considered procedural rather than substantive, 'state procedure must give way if it impedes the uniform application of the federal statute essential to effectuate its purpose, even though the procedure would apply to similar actions arising under state law.' " (Lund, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 15.) In Miller, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th 451, the Court applied the same reasoning to the availability of expert witness fees as costs in a FELA case brought in state court. (147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 457-458.) Like the Pennsylvania law at issue in Monessen Southwestern R. Co. v. Morgan and the California Civil Code section at issue in Lund, Code of Civil Procedure section 998 is "designed to encourage pretrial settlement by permitting plaintiffs additional recovery if certain conditions are satisfied." (Miller, supra, at p. 458.)