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CSX Transportation v. McBride
What’s at stake?
Holding railroad companies responsible when they harm employees.
Whether the Federal Employers’ Liability Act requires proof that an employer’s negligence was the proximate cause of an employee’s injury or whether a showing that the negligence played some part in causing the injury is sufficient for liability.
June 23, 2011
5-4 in favor of McBride. Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, except in Part III-A. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined the opinion. Justice Thomas joined the opinion, except Part III-A. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito.
Robert McBride was a conductor working for the rail transportation company CSX. McBride was injured when a braking system he was using for approximately seven to eight consecutive hours caused his hand to fatigue and fall into one of the brakes. McBride required two surgeries to repair the damage. In addition to pain and numbness, he still suffers from limited use of his hand.
McBride sued CSX under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a statute designed to improve health and safety conditions for railroad workers. A jury awarded damages to McBride because the configuration of the trains required constant maneuvers that caused his fatigue. FELA states that a railroad company is liable for injury or death “resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of” that company. CSX challenged the jury’s finding of liability on the ground that the trial judge’s jury instructions did not add a requirement that the company’s negligence also had to be the proximate cause of the injury. McBride’s attorney argued that FELA contains no such requirement.
Justice Ginsburg affirmed that the proper interpretation of FELA is a test to determine whether or not a railroad “caused or contributed to” an employee’s injury is whether the “negligence played a part—no matter how small—in bringing about the injury” (quoting the jury instructions). This test, she said, does not include the “proximate cause” test from torts at common law. Thus, she rejected CSX’s assertion that the judge should have instructed the jury on proximate cause, which CSX defines as a “direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged.” Justice Ginsburg noted that Congress enacted FELA to protect railroad workers and that previous cases have required a lower standard of negligence than traditional tort law. She also noted that with proper instructions (as in this case), juries would not be in danger of “award[ing] damages in far out ‘but for’ scenarios. Indeed, judges would have no warrant to submit such cases to the jury.”
Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent contended that the majority incorrectly interpreted Congress’ intent in writing the statute. He argued that the language at issue here was intended to eliminate contributory negligence rather than proximate cause. “[T]he ‘in whole or in part’ language,” he said, “simply reflected the fact that the railroad would remain liable even if its negligence was not the sole cause of injury.” By construing the statute this way, Chief Justice Roberts insisted that proximate cause should still be necessary for liability in a FELA case, which would raise the threshold for negligence and block more railroad workers from holding their employers accountable for their injuries.
Because the Supreme Court sided with McBride, railroad employees and their survivors will continue to be able to hold negligent employers responsible when they are injured or killed on the job.
- Daily Record: Justices take CSX case on causation standard
- Bloomberg: Railroad Worker Injury Clash Draws U.S. Supreme Court Review
- Brief of Petitioner CSX Transportation
- Brief for Respondent Robert McBride
- Reply Brief of Petitioner CSX Transportation
- Brief for the Association of American Railroads in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for the American Train Dispatchers Association, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers & Blacksmiths, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers District of Local 32 BJ, SEIU, the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, Transport Workers Union of America, the Transportation Communications International Union and the United Transportation Union in Support of Respondent
- Brief for Cheryl Campagno, Daniel D. Hill, and Frances K. Jennings in Support of Respondent
- Brief for the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys in Support of Respondents
- Brief for the American Association for Justice in Support of Respondent