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Employees Need Not Prove Proximate Cause when Alleging FELA Violation

CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride
No. 10–235 (U.S. 2011)

by Imran O. Shaukat, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In this recent case, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51 (2006) (the “Act”), which holds railroads liable for the injuries or deaths of their employees resulting in whole or in part from the railroads’ negligence, did not incorporate the common law tort “proximate cause” causation standard.

By way of background, the Act states that “[e]very 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 . . . .” 45 U.S.C. § 51 (2006).

Here, Robert McBride, a locomotive engineer with CSX Transportation, Inc. (“CSX”), an interstate railroad, sustained a hand injury while switching railroad cars. McBride argued that CSX was negligent when it: (1) required him to use unsafe switching equipment; and (2) failed to train him to operate switching equipment. CSX argued that McBride was required to show that CSX’s negligence was a “proximate cause” of the injury. Additionally, CSX objected to the failure to instruct the jury on the common law “proximate cause” standard.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois disagreed with CSX. Relying on Rogers v. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 500 (1957), the court instructed the jury that, under the Act, a defendant causes or contributes to a plaintiff’s injury if the defendant’s negligence played a part – no matter how small – in bringing about the injury. Finding that CSX played a part in McBride’s injury, the jury returned a verdict for McBride. CSX appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, renewing its objection to the failure to instruct the jury on the “proximate cause” standard. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court recognized that the Act employed a relaxed standard of causation. Relying on Rogers, the Court reasoned that, in enacting the Act, Congress sought to supplant the common law tort duty with the Act’s “far more drastic duty of paying damages for injury or death at work due in whole or in part to the employer’s negligence.” 352 U.S. at 507. Because the District Court’s jury instruction tracked the language in Rogers, the instruction was proper. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the District Court and the Seventh Circuit.


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