The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) is unique in that it provides railroad employees with several choices of courts in which to file and try their cases. The FELA gives jurisdiction over cases brought under its provision to both state and federal courts. This is commonly known as “concurrent jurisdiction”. This means the plaintiff (employee) can file his or her case in either a federal or state court. Each court has benefits a plaintiff should consider when choosing a forum for trial. In federal court the timing of the trial and pretrial discovery are largely controlled by the court. This results in cases rather efficiently moving to trial; however, federal courts may be less flexible in scheduling trials or accommodating changes in the preset schedule of the court. On the other hand, state courts typically leave the scheduling of trial and pretrial discovery in the hands of the litigants (within a framework set by the court). This procedure may result in a more flexible trial and discovery schedule, but the case may move to trial a little more deliberately than in the federal system. In short counsel and client need to consider each system when deciding in which court to file a FELA claim.
The FELA is also unique in that cases filed by the plaintiff (employee) in state court may not be removed by the defendant to federal court. This protection reinforces the benefit of the plaintiff’s (employee’s) to choose an appropriate forum. Often a FELA plaintiff may also have a choice of courts the state system(s). The plaintiff typically may file his or her FELA case in the city or town in which the injury occurred or in a city or town in which the defendant railroad conducts a significant amount of business. The ability to file a suit in a city or town based upon the railroad’s business ties and not the location of the plaintiff’s injury varies greatly form state to state. Various state legislatures have significantly eroded the business connection venue over the years; however, every FELA plaintiff would be wise to consider the full spectrum of forums available for trial. Some important considerations in the evaluation of potential courts for trial are the availability of trial days (i.e. How congested is the court’s calendar?) and the accessibility of the court to the anticipated witnesses (i.e. Can the witnesses make it to trial or is the plaintiff better off with the witnesses simply appearing by deposition?).
These are a very limited number of the considerations relevant to choices of venue under the FELA. These factors vary from case to case, but should be considered early and completely by every FELA plaintiff.