Supreme Court affirms reduced causation standard under FELA

The United States Supreme Court decided last month in a 5-4 decision that injured railroad workers can recover damages under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) if the railroad’s negligence “played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury for which damages are sought.” See CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, Case No. 10-235. The majority opinion upheld decades of lower court decisions and rejected an attempt by the railroad to make recovery under the FELA more difficult for railroad employees.

The primary issue in McBride was the appropriate legal standard of causation in FELA cases. Injuries have countless causes. The law does not generally recognize all of of these causes as the basis for legal liability. At some point in the chain of events, the cause of an injury becomes too remote. This concept is usually referred to as “proximate” cause. Charles A. Rothfeld, Esq., the attorney who presented the oral argument on behalf of CSX in McBride, provided the Court with an extreme example of this concept. If I drive you from Washington, D.C. to New York, and I drive too fast, exceeding the speed limit, I am negligent. If you are injured because I get into an accident and hit another car, my negligence can be considered the proximate cause of your injuries, because the negligence directly causes the accident. Consider, alternatively, the case where we get to New York safely and at the precise moment you get out of the car you are struck by lightning. My negligence is technically a cause of your injury, because if I would have driven the speed limit you would not have been at that spot when lightning struck. In this situation my negligence would not be the proximate cause, however, because it is too remote from the event.

When Congress passed the FELA in 1908, it included language in the statute making the railroad liable in damages to any employee for an injury “resulting in whole or in part from the negligence” of the railroad. At that time, the railroad industry was extremely dangerous, causing 281,645 casualties in the year 1908 alone. (McBride, p. 4). Many injured employees were unable to recover damages from the railroad before the FELA because the law generally protected employers from such claims. Congress intended the FELA to change that and allow liberal recoveries to railroad employees. Given the “in whole or in part” language of the statute, and the humanitarian and remedial goals of Congress in enacting the FELA, courts have consistently held that a relaxed standard of causation applies under the FELA. (McBride, p. 5).

Last month in the McBride decision, the Supreme Court upheld that interpretation. Although the FELA still won’t allow recovery if a worker is struck by lightning in the example above, the worker does not have to prove that the railroad’s negligence is the direct and immediate cause of the incident causing his injuries. It is sufficient to show that the railroad’s negligence played any part, even in the slightest, in producing the injury.

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