No Room for Proximate Cause in FELA Actions

     (CN) – The Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed jury instructions on negligence that resulted in a judgment of more than $183,000 for a train engineer who permanently injured his hand while working for the interstate rail operator, CSX Transportation.

     Robert McBride was working in 2004 on a train run from Evansville, Ind., to Mount Vernon, Ill.
     Because of the unusual engine configuration of the train, which required use of a hand brake, McBride had complained that the job – adding and removing various rail cars at frequent stops in a process known as “switching” – was unsafe.
     When McBride injured his hand and never regained full use of it, he sued CSX under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) in Illinois’ Southern District, claiming the company negligently used unsafe equipment and failed to train him.
     A federal judge instructed the jury about negligence, using a pattern set by the 7th Circuit, but refused CSX’s request to instruct the jury about proximate cause.
     The jury ultimately awarded McBride $275,000, and then later reduced that amount by one-third, which it estimated as the percentage of McBride’s own negligence.
     CSX appealed, arguing that a properly instructed jury might have found that the chain of causation was too indirect, or that the engine configuration was unsafe because of its propensity to cause crashes during switching, not because of any risk to an engineer’s hands.
     The 7th Circuit approved the District Court’s jury instruction and affirmed the judgment.
     A majority of the Supreme Court justices affirmed that ruling Thursday.
     “Every Court of Appeals that reviews judgments in FELA cases has approved jury instructions on causation identical or substantively equivalent to the Seventh Circuit’s instruction,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. “Each appellate court has rejected common-law formulations of proximate cause of the kind CSX requested in this case.”
     The high court defined FELA liability in the 1957 case Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co. as a finding that “employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought.”
     On Thursday they rejected that such “instruction opens the door to unlimited liability, CSX worries, inviting juries to impose liability on the basis of ‘but for’ causation.”
     “But a half century’s experience with Rogers gives us little cause for concern: CSX’s briefs did not identify even one trial in which the instruction generated an absurd or untoward award,” Ginsburg wrote. “Nor has the dissent managed to uncover such a case.”
     Ginsburg and another of the majority-concurring justices, Clarence Thomas, did not join in part III-A of the decision, which parses the lack of a uniform definition for “proximate cause.”
     Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the opinion in full.
     Chief Justice John Roberts authored a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito.
     “The Court is wrong to dispense with that familiar element of an action seeking recovery for negligence, an element ‘generally thought to be a necessary limitation on liability,'” Roberts wrote, referring to the proximate cause. “The test the Court would substitute – whether negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury – is no limit at all. It is simply ‘but for’ causation. Nothing in FELA itself, or our decision in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U. S. 500 (1957), supports such a boundless theory of liability.”

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