54 Year Dispute Over 5 Words

One of the basic elements of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) may be fundamentally changed this year by the United States Supreme Court. Briefs have been filed and oral argument is scheduled for March in the case of CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride (Case No. 10-235). At issue is whether the phrase “in whole or in part” in the text of the statute lowers the standard of causation that an injured railroad worker must prove when bringing a claim against the railroad.

To win a lawsuit brought under the FELA, a plaintiff must prove a few basic elements: (1) the railroad was negligent, or at fault; (2) the negligence of the railroad caused his injuries; and (3) the worker suffered injury or damage. The FELA states in part that a railroad employee may recover for a workplace injury resulting “in whole or in part” from the negligence of the railroad. In 1957, the US Supreme Court interpreted the phrase “in whole or in part” to mean that in proving the second element above (the causation element), a worker need only show that the railroad’s negligence “played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought.” Rogers v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Co., 352 U.S. 500, 506 (1957). Since 1957, lower courts across the country have followed Rogers and interpreted the FELA as having a lower standard of causation than that required in other types of negligence cases. The standard is lower in FELA cases because the statute is meant to insure the security of workers in the industry, and encourage railroads to improve safety measures in order to avoid claims by employees.

Attorneys representing the railroads have fought this interpretation of the statute since the Court’s decision in Rogers. The railroads insist that “in whole or in part” does not create a reduced standard of causation, but instead only means that the railroad may be responsible for damages even when multiple factors combine to cause an injury. (For example, when smoking and exposure to asbestos both contribute to lung cancer). They argue that traditional standards of causation must be used when evaluating each factor, however.

In McBride, the United States Supreme Court has, for the first time since Rogers was decided, agreed to give full consideration to the railroad’s argument. If the railroad’s position carries the day, 54 years of precedent on this issue will evaporate, and the hurdles an injured worker must overcome will get higher. Stay tuned…

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