June 23, 2011

Supreme Court Decides FELA Causation Standard Case: CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride

On June 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court decided CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, No. 10-235, holding that under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51, a defendant railroad "caused or contributed to" a railroad worker's injury, permitting a plaintiff to recover, if the railroad's negligence played a part—no matter how small—in bringing about the plaintiff's injury. 

Plaintiff Robert McBride, a locomotive engineer for defendant CSX Transportation, Inc., suffered a debilitating hand injury while switching railroad cars. He filed suit under FELA, which holds railroads liable for employees' injuries "resulting in whole or in part from [carrier] negligence." 45 U. S. C. §51.  McBride alleged that CSX negligently required him to use unsafe switching equipment and failed to train him to operate that equipment.  At trial, the District Court instructed the jury that it could find for McBride if it concluded that CSX's negligence "caused or contributed to" his injury and that "Defendant ‘caused or contributed to' Plaintiff's injury if Defendant's negligence played a part—no matter how small—in bringing about the injury."  The jury returned a verdict for McBride.  CSX appealed, arguing that the court should have defined proximate cause to require a "direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged."  The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court also affirmed.  The Court held that FELA does not incorporate ordinary "proximate cause" standards developed in non-statutory common-law tort actions.  The Court observed that FELA's purpose was "humanitarian" and "remedial," and noted that text of FELA permits recovery "for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier" (emphasis by the Court).  The Court concluded that its earlier decision in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U. S. 500 (1957), which adopted the same lower standard, provided a "comprehensive statement of the FELA causation standard."   The Court also rejected CSX's argument that the causation standard would lead to unlimited liability, noting that lower courts had applied the lower causation standard for half a century and that CSX could not identify a single absurd or untoward result. 

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part III.  Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined that opinion in full, and Justice Thomas joined as to all but Part III.  Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito joined. 

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