Whether the Federal Employers’ Liability Act requires proof of proximate causation in order for a railroad employee to recover for a workplace injury, or whether the employee is only required to show that the employer played some role in causing the injury.
Respondent Robert McBride, a railroad engineer for Petitioner CSX Transportation Inc. (“CSX”), sued CSX under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), claiming that CSX was responsible for a hand injury that McBride suffered while operating the brakes of a train. In its appeal of the jury’s verdict in favor of McBride, CSX alleges that proximate causation is required for recovery under FELA. McBride contends that proximate causation is not the proper standard of causation, based on recent rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Courts of Appeals. CSX also argues that public policy supports use of a proximate cause standard, while McBride argues that requiring proximate causation actually discourages employers from maintaining safe workplaces. The Supreme Court’s ruling will elucidate the proper standard of causation required under FELA.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, requires proof of proximate causation.
Petitioner CSX Transportation, Inc. (“CSX”) is a railroad company. Respondent Robert McBride worked for CSX as a locomotive engineer. An engineer’s responsibilities include managing the brake system, which contains both automatic and independent brakes. On April 12, 2004, McBride reached out to release the brakes but, allegedly due to fatigue, his hand fell and hit the independent brake, whereupon he experienced intense pain. McBride’s hand was severely injured, requiring several surgeries, and leaving McBride with pain even a year after the accident.
McBride sued CSX in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, alleging that CSX negligently configured the trains, requiring constant use of his hand for hours and ultimately leading to his hand injury. McBride sought recovery under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), which provides compensation for railroad employees injured on the job. McBride offered a jury instruction regarding the causation requirement inherent in negligence – an instruction followed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. That instruction was based upon language from a U.S. Supreme Court case, Rogers v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Company, 352 U.S. 500 (1957), which, according to McBride, held that proximate causation is not required for a valid FELA claim.
In response, CSX offered an instruction that negligence under FELA does indeed require proximate causation. CSX cited another Supreme Court case in arguing that the Supreme Court did not abandon the proximate causation requirement under FELA. CSX noted that proximate causation is a standard requirement under common law negligence theory. The District Court adopted McBride’s jury instruction, and later upheld the jury’s verdict in McBride’s favor.
On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling in favor of a relaxed causation requirement under FELA. The Seventh Circuit explained that the standard of causation had become broader over time, as exemplified by the Rogers case. However, the Seventh Circuit stated that Rogers did not explicitly eliminate the proximate causation requirement, and that the Supreme Court’s position was not totally clear.
The Seventh Circuit stated that proximate causation, in its traditional sense, is not used in FELA. Moreover, the Seventh Circuit noted that other circuits have also relaxed the traditional requirement of proximate cause in this context. Finally, the Seventh Circuit pointed out that congressional inaction suggests that Congress agrees with the recent loosening of the causation standard, so that proximate causation is not appropriate under FELA.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether an employee filing a claim under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) must prove that the railroad employer’s negligence was the proximate cause of the employee’s injury in order to hold the railroad liable. Petitioner CSX Transportation, Inc. (“CSX”) argues that Section 1 of FELA requires proof that the railroad’s negligence was the proximate cause of the employee’s injury. However, Respondent Robert McBride argues that Section 1 rejects proof of proximate causation, and adopts a more relaxed standard of causation, under which an employee need only show that the employer was partly responsible.
Does the Plain Meaning of the Statute Adopt Proximate Causation Standards?
CSX argues that FELA Section 1 clearly adopts the proximate causation standard. CSX attests that, under established statutory interpretation principles, FELA’s elements are determined according to the common law unless express statutory language refutes it. According to CSX, it is well-established under the common law of negligence that a plaintiff must prove that a defendant’s negligence is the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Also, CSX argues that FELA’s language does not expressly refute the common law of proximate causation; therefore, FELA adopts the proximate causation standard. According to CSX, the plain meaning of the statute—that the employee’s injury must “result . . . in whole or in part” from the employer’s negligence—does not address proximate causation; accordingly, the common law standard of proximate causation is left in place. CSX asserts that this provision contemplates multiplicity of causes, but does not address the requisite directness of causation; according to CSX, these are distinct legal concepts. CSX further claims that the fact that common law courts typically used the “in whole or in part” standard separately from a proximate causation requirement proves that the courts used the phrase as a distinct multiple causation standard.
However, McBride argues that Section 1 expressly rejects the proximate causation standard. McBride underscores the fact that FELA does not use either the words “proximate cause” or any other words commonly tied to the idea, such as “directly,” “substantially,” “foreseeably,” or “probably.” Also, McBride asserts that a proximate causation standard is inconsistent with the statute’s plain meaning, because, under a proximate cause standard, an employer’s negligence must play a significant role in the injury, rather than a role “in part.” McBride asserts that “in part” means that FELA could hold an employer liable if his negligence harms the employee indirectly, as well as if it is one of multiple causes of the employee’s injury or death. Therefore, according to McBride, FELA rejects the common law proximate causation standard by relaxing the requirement.
Did Congress Adopt the Proximate Causation Standard in FELA?
CSX argues that FELA’s Congressional purpose does not relax the statute’s proximate causation standard. CSX concedes that the statute’s purpose includes providing “broad remedial relief” to railroad employees. But CSX contends that the Court has previously rejected the argument that FELA’s statutory purpose relaxes the causation standard for plaintiff employees.
Furthermore, CSX asserts that proximate causation could sometimes further the statute’s remedial purpose. CSX asserts that, under FELA’s comparative negligence theory of liability, a strict proximate causation standard will make it more difficult to prove the employee’s comparative negligence. On the other hand, according to CSX, a relaxed causation standard will actually make it more difficult for the employee to recover higher damages from the employer. CSX also notes that legislative history shows that Congress only intended to abolish four common-law rules, which did not include getting rid of proximate causation.
By contrast, McBride argues that legislative history shows that Congress intended to reject proximate causation and relax the causation standard. According to McBride, legislative history does not show that Congress adopted a particular meaning of proximate causation in FELA. McBride asserts that at the time of FELA’s enactment courts and scholars disagreed on the meaning of proximate cause, debating the point at which a defendant’s negligence should no longer be deemed responsible for a remote third party’s injuries. McBride emphasizes that the statute’s broad, remedial purpose requires a relaxed causation standard. McBride asserts that FELA’s relaxed causation standard adequately protects employees by placing the burden of compensation on employers who can financially and practically avoid worksite safety risks. McBride claims that proximate causation is not necessary in order to protect employers from excessive litigation because FELA already limits the class of potential plaintiffs to railroad employees or their families.
McBride also argues that the legislative history of FELA, Section 4, confirms that Congress rejected the proximate causation standard. In Section 4, according to McBride, Congress decided to eliminate the employer’s assumption-of-risk defense when the employee’s injury results “in whole or in part” from the employer’s negligence. McBride contends that legislative history shows that Section 4 replaced the phrase “proximate causation” with “in whole or in part,” paralleling the language in FELA Section 1. McBride asserts it would be inconsistent for Congress to adopt a proximate cause standard in Section 1 while expressly rejecting it in Section 4.
Do Previous FELA Cases Show that the Court Has Adopted Proximate Causation?
CSX argues that previous FELA cases established that the statute adopts a proximate causation standard. CSX points out that earlier cases explicitly used the proximate causation standard. CSX also emphasizes that previous cases adopted proximate causation by contrasting and rejecting “but-for” causation. In particular, CSX challenges McBride’s assertion that Rogers v. Missouri Pacific Railroad is the seminal case that rejected the proximate causation standard. According to CSX, Rogers did not explicitly overrule the proximate cause standard, but rather upheld the pre-Rogers cases that established proximate cause under FELA. CSX emphasizes the fact that it is very rare for the Court to implicitly overturn a long-established precedent of statutory interpretation, such as FELA’s proximate causation standard. CSX further argues that Rogers actually assumed that FELA requires proximate causation in four places. First, CSX asserts that the Rogers Court accepted the trial court’s jury instructions, which adopted the proximate causation standard.Second, CSX claims that the plaintiff’s theory of recovery was based on proximate causation. Third, CSX argues that the Rogers Court’s holding was based on previous cases that adopted a proximate causation standard. Lastly, CSX emphasizes that the dissenting justices characterized the case as applying a settled causation principle rather than establishing a new rule on causation.
McBride, on the other hand, argues that case precedents have established a relaxed causation standard under FELA. McBride dismisses as dicta CSX’s pre-Rogers case law that supposedly adopted proximate causation. McBride further maintains that previous cases used the causation language, “in part,” to hold an employer liable even if his negligent action was not the last culpable act, or proximate cause, of the employee’s injury. McBride insists that this indicates a relaxed causation standard. Furthermore, McBride argues that Rogers conclusively relaxed FELA’s proximate causation standard. McBride argues that the Court in Rogers did, in fact, address both the multiple causation and proximate causation issue under FELA. According to McBride, the Court found the employer guilty because its negligence “played a part” in the employee’s injury. Furthermore, McBride asserts that the Court plainly rejected the proximate cause standard when it stated that it is “irrelevant” whether some other factor than the employer’s negligent act was an “immediate” cause of the employee’s injury. McBride insists that cases after Rogers confirmed the relaxed causation standard.
Petitioner CSX Transportation, Inc. (“CSX”) argues that Congressional intent supports a proximate cause requirement because the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) allows victims to obtain high awards and the proximate causation standard is a historically required element of common-law negligence. Respondent Robert McBride argues that congressional intent does not support a proximate cause standard, since it would discourage employers from implementing proper safety standards at work.
What was the Congressional Intent behind FELA?
The Association of American Railroads (“AAR”) argues that Congress did not want a no-fault system under FELA, notably choosing not to adopt such a system when states and the federal government began to use this type of system in other areas of the law. The AAR argues that Congress did not want a cap to be placed on railroad injuries, but this was balanced by a heightened causation standard. Finally, the AAR insists that the movement towards no-fault was improperly made by courts, rather than by elected officials.
The American Train Dispatchers Association and other organized labor groups (“ATDA”) argue that Congress wants to provide railroad workers with as broad a level of protection as possible, since the railroad industry continues to involve extremely dangerous work. According to the ATDA, common law defenses have repeatedly interfered with the goals of worker protection under FELA. The ATDA maintains that a proximate cause standard, which makes it harder for an employee to make a claim, was not specified by FELA. Indeed, the ATDA asserts that reading a proximate cause standard would be “antithetical” to the purposes behind FELA.
Which Standard of Causation Best Serves Public Policy?
The AAR argues that a proximate cause standard serves the common-law purposes behind FELA quite well. Notably, several cases have awarded multimillion dollar judgments, allowing substantial verdicts for injuries in such a dangerous industry; the AAR suggests that proximate causation will limit the potential for industry-crippling jury verdicts. The AAR also emphasizes that the public policy behind FELA is predicated on relief from negligence, and that proximate causation has long been a historical requirement of negligence. In fact, similar legislation regarding federal antitrust rules, which was passed at the time of FELA, also required proximate causation. As a result, the AAR maintains that public policy requires courts to prudently follow the policies behind legislation such as FELA, and not simply to construe it otherwise for apparently humanitarian reasons.
The ATDA argues that using a proximate cause standard, instead of a more relaxed causation standard, eliminates employers’ incentives to reduce dangerous railroad accidents. The ATDA urges that protecting railroad workers is still extremely important, since railroad-worker death continues to be a very serious risk even today. A proximate cause standard of liability, rather than a lower standard, will make employers less likely to prevent these injuries, the ATDA argues, since the penalties involved will be much less than the potential savings. Furthermore, the ATDA explains that regulators currently have difficulty investigating all of the accidents which occur, noting that less than one percent of accidents are actually investigated. Therefore, the ATDA suggests that a relaxed FELA causation standard allows private citizens to assist regulators in enforcing safety standards.
The decision in this case will determine the proper standard of causation under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. CSX argues that proximate causation is the proper standard, while McBride argues that a looser standard of causation is warranted. CSX maintains that Congressional intent opposes a looser causation standard, and that proximate causation adequately protects employees. McBride, in contrast, insists that recent court decisions broadening the concept of causation, coupled with Congressional inaction in response to these cases, support upholding the jury’s award of damages in this case. This case will affect the ability of railroad employees to recover for injuries sustained while working.
Bloomberg, Greg Stohr: Railroad Worker Injury Clash Draws U.S. Supreme Court Review (Nov. 29, 2010)
The Daily Record, Kimberly Atkins: Justices Take CSX Case on Causation Standard (Nov. 29, 2010)