In a major defeat for CSX and other railroad companies that have long attempted to curtail rail employees’ protections under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, or FELA, the U.S. Supreme Court followed longstanding precedent and ruled on June 23, 2011, that railroads can be held liable when their failure to adequately train workers or provide appropriate tools or equipment can be shown to have in any way caused or contributed "in whole or in any part" to a worker injury. CSX had argued that the Court should limit or overrule its own 1957 "Rogers" decision, but the majority declined the railroad’s invitation.
The Washington Post briefly summarized the decision in CSX Transportation v. McBride by writing, "The justices ruled in favor of a railroad worker who sued his employer over injuries suffered on the job, a 5-4 decision about how closely tied the company’s actions must be to the injury." The full court ruling, linked from the case name above, makes it clear that the railroad could not reduce its liability for the severe hand injury Robert McBride, a locomotive engineer for the railroad, while switching train cars. Specifically, the Court came to the majority opinion by following stare decisis (following precedent). In other words, railroads are liable if their negligence, in whole or in the smallest part, causes an injury to, illness for or death of a railroad worker which was what the Court declared in the Rogers ’57 opinion.
McBride and his legal team led by FELA specialists John Kujawski and Bob Marcus won their victory — which also stands as a big win for all men and women who work in rail yards and on trains and tracks — thanks to the majority led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For its part, CSX had argued that common law proximate causation is required before railroads can be held liable despite a century of instructions to juries in FELA cases that railroads are responsible if their negligence contributed in whole or any part to causing a worker’s death or injuries. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito sided with CSX and against labor protections.
Despite that dissent, the ruling cuts off the end run CSX, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, Amtrak Union Pacific and other railroads have been trying to make since FELA was first enacted in 1908. In CSX Transportation v. McBride, the companies were attempting to undo the intent of the U.S. Congress and decades of legal precedent, in getting the nation’s highest court to recognize a vague and ill-defined higher standard of cause proof under the FELA. Had they succeeded, railroad companies hoped to avoid liability in a larger number of cases for their negligence.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.