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Friday, June 24, 2011

A Victory for Railroad Workers

Yesterday the Supreme Court held in CSX Transportation, Inc., v. McBride that the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) does not require a railroad employee to prove that a railroad’s negligence was the proximate cause of the employee’s on-the-job injury in order to hold the railroad liable for that injury. The employee must only prove that the railroad’s negligence played any part in the injury.
Robert McBride was a conductor working for the rail transportation company CSX. McBride was injured when a braking system he was using for approximately seven to eight consecutive hours caused his hand to fatigue and fall into one of the brakes. McBride required two surgeries to repair the damage. In addition to pain and numbness, he still suffers from limited use of his hand.

McBride sued CSX under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a statute designed to improve health and safety conditions for railroad workers. A jury awarded damages to McBride because the configuration of the trains required constant maneuvers that caused his fatigue. FELA states that a railroad company is liable for injury or death “resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of” that company. CSX challenged the jury’s finding of liability on the ground that the trial judge’s jury instructions did not add a requirement that the company’s negligence also had to be the proximate cause of the injury. McBride’s attorney argued that FELA contains no such requirement.

Justice Ginsburg affirmed that the proper interpretation of FELA is a test to determine whether or not a railroad “caused or contributed to” an employee’s injury is whether the “negligence played a part—no matter how small—in bringing about the injury” (quoting the jury instructions). This test, she said, does not include the “proximate cause” test from torts at common law. Thus, she rejected CSX’s assertion that the judge should have instructed the jury on proximate cause, which CSX defines as a “direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged.” Justice Ginsburg noted that Congress enacted FELA to protect railroad workers and that previous cases have required a lower standard of negligence than traditional tort law. She also noted that with proper instructions (as in this case), juries would not be in danger of “award[ing] damages in far out ‘but for’ scenarios. Indeed, judges would have no warrant to submit such cases to the jury.”

Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent contended that the majority incorrectly interpreted Congress’ intent in writing the statute. He argued that the language at issue here was intended to eliminate contributory negligence rather than proximate cause. “[T]he ‘in whole or in part’ language,” he said, “simply reflected the fact that the railroad would remain liable even if its negligence was not the sole cause of injury.” By construing the statute this way, Chief Justice Roberts insisted that proximate cause should still be necessary for liability in a FELA case, which would raise the threshold for negligence and block more railroad workers from holding their employers accountable for their injuries.

Because the Supreme Court sided with McBride, railroad employees and their survivors will continue to be able to hold negligent employers responsible when they are injured or killed on the job.

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