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LEGAL UPDATE: Supreme Court defines proper standard of causation under FELA

By: T.H. Lyda, Esq. and Edwin B. Palmer, Esq.

June 23, 2011 — The Supreme Court of the United States today announced its decision in the matter of CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride. This decision has been anticipated for several months, with the railroad industry and FELA counsel expecting that the Court’s ruling would clarify the proper standard of causation under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.

Robert McBride, a CSX locomotive engineer, alleged that on April 12, 2004, he was assigned to operate a train on a local run with an unusual consist: two ”wide-body” engines followed by three small conventional cabs. Although McBride protested the arrangement was unsafe, he was instructed to take the train as configured. McBride claims that because the wide-body engines required constant use of a hand-operated independent brake, he became fatigued and sustained a debilitating hand injury when his hand fell and struck the independent brake. McBride filed suit under FELA, alleging that the railroad required him to use unsafe switching equipment and that the railroad failed to properly train him how to use the equipment.

The matter proceeded to trial. The trial court instructed the Jury that the railroad would be liable if “Defendant’s negligence played a part – no matter how small – in bringing about the injury. ” The trial court declined CSX’s request for additional charges, requiring McBride to prove that CSX’s negligence was the proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injury. CSX further requested that proximate cause be defined as “any cause which, in natural or probable sequence, produced the injury complained of,” with the qualification that a proximate cause “need not be the only cause, nor the last or nearest cause. ” After the Jury entered a verdict for the Plaintiff, CSX appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s jury instruction. CSX again appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held today that the FELA does not incorporate proximate cause standards found in non-statutory common law tort actions. The Supreme Court held that the proper standard of causation is whether a defendant railroad caused or contributed to a plaintiff employee’s injury if the railroad’s negligence played any part in bringing about the injury. In arriving at its opinion, the Court relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s 1957 opinion in the matter of Rogers v. Missouri Pacific Rail Co. and the 50 years of subsequent precedent that established a relaxed standard of causation in FELA matters. In Rogers, the Supreme Court found that the FELA did not incorporate the traditional common-law formulation of proximate causation. The Rogers Court first articulated the “any part… in producing the injury” test of causation. The Court’s ruling in McBride specifically approved of Jury instructions defining the standard of causation as whether the defendant railroad’s negligence caused the injury “even in the slightest,” noting that the Rogers opinion “stated a clear instruction comprehensible by juries. ”

On preliminary analysis, the Court’s ruling essentially maintains the status quo in FELA litigation, as Courts have more often than not instructed Juries that the railroad defendant is liable if its negligence played any part in bringing about the alleged injury.

The Court’s full opinion is available to review by clicking here.

For a comprehensive and full analysis of how this impacts the rail industry, please contact T.H. Lyda, Esq., co-chair of Burns White’s Transportation Practice Group or Edwin B. Palmer, Esq., a partner in the Burns White Transportation Practice Group.