6-29-2011; Another U.S. Supreme Court decision of note for railroad liability in worker injuries

In CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, our highest court found common-law proximate cause is not required to establish liability under FELA and our highest court rules if employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing injury or death, damages will lie. The decision is online at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/10-235.pdf

An employee who worked as a locomotive engineer for a railroad carrier brought an action against his employer under FELA, seeking compensation for a hand injury that he sustained while performing switching operations. After declining to give the "proximate cause" jury instruction requested by the carrier, the Federal District Court employed the Seventh Circuit's pattern instruction for FELA cases which says: "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 the employee.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals approved the District Court's causation instruction and affirmed the judgment entered on the jury's verdict, noting in Rogers v. Missouri Pac. R. Co., the U.S. Supreme Court had relaxed the proximate cause requirement in FELA cases. Certiorari was granted by our highest court.

Section 1 of FELA, 45 U.S.C.A. 51, provides, in relevant part: "Every common carrier by railroad ... shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier ... 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.... " FELA was enacted in response to the exceptionally hazardous nature of the railroad business at the dawn of the twentieth century, Justice Ginsburg observed, writing for the Court.

Given the breadth of FELA's causation language, and Congress' humanitarian and remedial goals in enacting the statute, a "relaxed standard" of causation applies under FELA in comparison to tort litigation at common law. In describing that standard, the Rogers court stated: " 'Under FELA the test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify with reason the conclusion that employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought.' " The Seventh Circuit's causation language tracked this language from Rogers.

The carrier did not ask the Court to disturb Rogers, but contended lower courts overread that opinion, which, the carrier asserted, was a narrowly focused decision that did not displace common-law formulations of "proximate cause" except with respect to recovery for injuries involving contributory negligence or other "multiple causes."

 Justice Ginsburg disagreed. Given the facts of that case, as well as the statutory history and precedent on which it drew, "Rogers is most sensibly read as a comprehensive statement of the FELA causation standard." It was not addressed exclusively to injuries involving multiple potentially cognizable causes but, rather, announced "a general standard for causation in FELA cases." Moreover, Justice Ginsburg noted, "in reliance on Rogers, 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," and each federal appellate court has rejected common-law formulations of proximate cause equivalent to the Seventh Circuit's instruction.

 In sum, the understanding of Rogers affirmed by the Court has been accepted as settled law for several decades, both by the courts and by Congress, which, despite having had more than 50 years to correct the Rogers decision if it wished to do so, had not acted.

Justice Thomas joined in the Court's opinion in part. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito, filed a dissenting opinion, criticizing the Court for dispensing with the familiar "proximate cause" element of an action seeking recovery for negligence and characterizing the standard adopted by the Court as "simply 'but-for' causation."