Supreme Court rules on employer liability claims

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in CSX Transportation v. McBride [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) [text] railroad negligence claim does not require proof of proximate cause. Respondent Robert McBride worked as a railroad engineer for petitioner CSX Transportation [corporate website]. McBride initiated a FELA claim, alleging that CSX negligently required him to use unsafe switching equipment and failed to train him to operate that equipment, both of which, he claims, led to a debilitating hand injury he sustained while on the job. At trial, the jury was not instructed on "proximate cause" because FELA renders railroads liable for employees' injuries or deaths "resulting in whole or in part from [carrier] negligence." CSX appealed after the jury found in favor of McBride. The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court decision, declining to hold [opinion, PDF] that common-law proximate causation is required to establish liability under FELA. The Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, noted that its decision in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co. [text] could not have been read to implement a "proximate cause" standard of causation in FELA lawsuits. Rather, the Rogers court announced the "any part" test, which asks whether "negligence of the employer played any part at all" in bringing about the injury:

[T]he understanding of Rogers we here affirm "has been accepted as settled law for several decades." ... Countless judges have instructed countless juries in language drawn from Rogers. To discard or restrict the Rogers instruction now would ill serve the goals of "stability" and "predictability" that the doctrine of statutory stare decisis aims to ensure.
The court also looked at the statutory history of FELA and other precedential cases interpreting FELA's language to reach its conclusion.

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito, argued in his dissent that the majority creates a limitless standard of causation for FELA claims and that the standard adopted by the majority is akin to a "but-for" test. Roberts pointed out that the Supreme Court has previously explained that in FELA cases, "[a]bsent express language to the contrary, the elements of a FELA claim are determined by reference to the common law." Because recovery for common law negligence has always required a showing of proximate cause, the same standard should apply to FELA claims. Furthermore, the dissent contends that the majority misinterpreted the Rogers decision, which, according to Roberts, was limited to cases of contributory negligence.

 

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