Is a train that has made a temporary stop in a rail yard considered “in use” on a railroad’s line and subject to the Locomotive Inspection Act and its corresponding safety regulations?
This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether a train that has stopped temporarily in a rail yard as part of its journey is considered “in use” on a railroad’s line and subject to the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) and other safety regulations. LeDure asserts that precedent cases under related legislation apply to the LIA and argues the term “use” encompasses locomotives, like UP5683, stopped en route to a destination, furthering the goal of the statutes to protect employees. Union Pacific counters that the precedent under similar statutes does not interpret “use” to encompass sidelined locomotives, and that the LIA contains unique aspects that limit the “use” of locomotives to their main purpose of actively hauling railcars. The outcome of this case has important implications for the safety and compensation of employees and the expectations of railroad operations.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether a locomotive is in use on a railroad’s line and subject to the Locomotive Inspection Act and its safety regulations when its train makes a temporary stop in a rail yard as part of its unitary journey in interstate commerce, or whether such use does not resume until the locomotive has left the yard as part of a fully assembled train, as held by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, contrary to the decisions of the Supreme Court and other circuits.
Locomotive UP5683 was a component of a train that originated in Chicago, IL and terminated in Dexter, MO. Brief for Petitioner, Bradley LeDure at 7. UP5683 arrived in Salem, IL at 2:00 AM; before its scheduled departure of 3:00 AM, its crew needed to be replaced. Id. Petitioner Bradley LeDure (“LeDure”) was part of the replacement crew. Id. A locomotive engineer employed by Union Pacific, LeDure was responsible for assembling the train for the remainder of the route. LeDure v. Union Pacific Railroad Company at 909. LeDure reported to the Salem rail yard for work around 2:10 AM. Id.
LeDure needed to decide how many locomotives to leave powered on; the remaining ones would be towed while powered off to conserve fuel. LeDure at 909. Of three locomotives, LeDure determined only the first would remain powered on, and the final two, including UP5683, would be shut down. Id. As he began working on UP5683, LeDure slipped and fell. Id. Though injured, LeDure got back up and powered down UP5683. Id. He reported slipping on a slick substance to his supervisor. Id. Respondent Union Pacific Railroad Company (“Union Pacific”) investigated the matter and determined LeDure slipped on a limited amount of oil that had accumulated on the exterior walkway. Id.
LeDure struck his head, back, and shoulders, and his doctors diagnosed injuries to his spine, shoulder, and head. Brief for Petitioner at 8. Despite multiple surgeries, LeDure was declared permanently disabled from railroad work. Id. LeDure sued Union Pacific in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois for negligence, using the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) to allege violations of the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA). Id. Under FELA, railroads are negligent per se with violations of safety standards under LIA, including the requirement that locomotive surfaces must be free of hazards. Id. The dispute was underscored by the parties’ disagreements over the locomotive’s location and whether UP5683 was “in use” at the time of LeDure’s injury. Brief for Petitioner at 9. Whereas LeDure argued that UP5683 was on an active track—not in an area designated for repairs or routine maintenance—Union Pacific asserted that UP5683 was in a “backtrack” of the rail yard, removed from the main track. Brief for Petitioner at 8; Brief for Respondent, Union Pacific at 9.
The parties moved for summary judgment, with the district court siding with Union Pacific and dismissing LeDure’s claims. LeDure at 909. The district court ruled that the LIA did not apply because UP5683 was on a side track and not part of a fully-assembled train nor moving at the time. Id.
Holding that UP5683 could not be considered “in use,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, ruling that the LIA and its safety regulations could not be invoked here. Brief for Petitioner at 9. LeDure then petitioned for a writ of certiorari on December 10, 2020, which the United States Supreme Court granted on December 15, 2021.
THE APPLICABILITY OF THE SAA
LeDure asserts that a term used in related statutes has similar meanings in both if the term is not defined according to the tenets of statutory interpretation. Brief for Petitioner, Bradley LeDure at 12. Since the Safety Appliance Act (SAA) and LIA both contain the terms “use or allow to be used” and relate to railroad employee compensation, LeDure argues that the meaning should be the same in both. Id. at 12–13. Therefore, LeDure maintains that precedent cases of the Supreme Court interpreting “use” in the SAA should also apply to “use” in the LIA given that “use” should have the same meaning in both and neither statute defines “use.” Id. at 13. While the SAA regulates railcars and the LIA regulates locomotives, LeDure asserts that similarities between railcars and locomotives allow both to be in “use” when not doing their main purposes of carrying or hauling respectively. Id. at 36. Otherwise, railcars could not be in “use,” claims LeDure, when without cargo, thereby undermining the Supreme Court’s application of “use” in past cases and the purpose of the Acts. Id. at 37.
Union Pacific counters that the legal basis in Supreme Court cases for interpreting “use” under the SAA differs in nature from the LIA and that these differences change the meaning of “use” under each statute. Brief for Respondent, Union Pacific Railroad Company at 22, 32. Since the SAA contains a safe harbor clause for moving defective railcars without an equivalent in the LIA, Union Pacific asserts that Congress intentionally left out a similar provision in the LIA because defective locomotives are not “in use” when being hauled for repair. Id. at 22. If locomotives are “in use” while being hauled, Union Pacific claims this would violate the LIA, discouraging repairs that Congress meant to encourage. Id. Union Pacific argues that courts never apply the higher inspection and repair standards for the “use” of locomotives found in the LIA to locomotives being hauled because the SAA does not have the same requirements for railcars being hauled. Id. at 23, 34. Since no Supreme Court case interprets “use” for hauling locomotives, Union Pacific asserts that this case involves a question of first impression. Id. at 39.
PLAIN MEANING OF “USE”
LeDure maintains that the term “use” should be given its “ordinary or natural meaning” since the LIA and SAA do not define the term. Brief for Petitioner at 13. LeDure asserts that the dictionary definitions of “use” during the time of the LIA and SAA encompassed any activity that “put to a purpose” the locomotive and the definitions of “allow to be used” include any locomotives the railroad “consents to or does not prohibit.” Id. at 13–14. Given their broad definitions, LeDure claims that “use” and “allow to be used” encompass situations where the locomotives may not be actively fulfilling their main purpose but remain on standby to haul, like UP5683. Id. at 14, 22. LeDure argues that “use” under other statutes extends to actions outside the “intended purpose” of an item, such as a firearm being “used” by trading it for drugs. Id. at 20–21. Since “use” has the same meaning in the LIA and SAA, LeDure claims that the SAA safe harbor clause reaffirms that “use” includes locomotives being towed because the safe harbor implies defective rail cars remain in “use” during transfer for repairs. Id. at 15.
Union Pacific counters that, in order to determine the meaning of “use,” one must consider the context, especially around the specific item being “used.” Brief for Respondent at 17. Union Pacific claims that the meaning of “use” typically involves the “active employment” of the item for its “intended purpose.” Id. at 17–18. In Bailey v. United States, Union Pacific asserts that the Supreme Court interpreted “use” regarding firearms to involve the actual firing of a firearm, as the “use” of a firearm is different from having a firearm. Id. at 18. Therefore, Union Pacific argues that the “use” of locomotives, given their normal purpose of hauling railcars, must involve active hauling. Id. at 19. Union Pacific maintains that the legislative context of the LIA supports “use” requiring hauling because earlier versions of the statute connected “use” to language involving movement, which only was removed from the statute for stylistic purposes. Id. at 19–20. Further, since the LIA requires locomotives to be inspected and repaired before being “used again,” Union Pacific asserts that the statute cannot include locomotives being inspected as “in use.” Id. at 35.
SAA AND LIA PRECEDENT
LeDure asserts that in precedent cases a locomotive remains in “use” even if stopped, not on the main line, set-aside, and being towed as was UP5683 at the time of the injury. Brief for Petitioner at 24. The Supreme Court held in Brady v. Terminal Railroad Ass’n of St. Louis (“Brady”) and Lilly v. Grand Trunk W.R.R. Co. (“Lily”), claims LeDure, that railcars and locomotives under the SAA and LIA remain “in use” even if stopped along the way to their destination. Id. at 27. LeDure argues that railcars remain “in use” no matter if stopped on an inactive track according to numerous Supreme Court cases and the text of the SAA and LIA themselves. Id. at 29. Further, LeDure maintains that Supreme Court cases find railcars to be “in use” after being separated at a stop even if the railcar needs repairs or will not be continuing on the journey due to damages. Id. at 18–19. Also, LeDure argues that a train with multiple of these factors remains “in use” according to precedent as long as the events occur on the way to the destination. Id. at 24, 31. Therefore, LeDure asserts that UP5683 remained “in use” even though stopped and set apart from the rest of the train until departing for the rest of the trip. Id. at 25.
LeDure claims that UP5683 continued to be “used” at the time of the accident even though it was going through inspections and preparations. Id. at 33. LeDure asserts that UP5683 only was being “‘prepar[ed]’ for travel” and therefore “in use” according to the Supreme Court in Lilly, in contrast with locomotives receiving repairs at a repair facility. Id. at 32. LeDure claims that locomotives continue to be “in use” even during an inspection as the railcar in Brady and while awaiting a necessary step before departure like the tender in Lilly. Id. at 34. Further, LeDure maintains that the statute would make no sense if inspections were separated from the “use” of the locomotive as the statute requires daily inspections only for locomotives “in use.” Id. Also, LeDure claims that the actions of the injured worker have no bearing on whether the locomotive was “in use” according to Brady, and LeDure argues that even if the injured worker was getting UP5683 “in readiness for use,” this only proves that the locomotive was “allowed to be used” by the carrier. Id. at 35–36.
Union Pacific counters that LeDure’s arguments essentially render every locomotive outside a repair facility to be “in use,” undermining years of cases and regulations interpreting the rule much broader even for railcars. Brief for Respondent at 27, 35. Union Pacific notes that some courts have found a locomotive to not be “in use” under the LIA when on a sidetrack awaiting servicing and maintenance. Id. at 27. While maintaining that “use” under the SAA and LIA remain different, Union Pacific claims that the SAA cases cited by LeDure mostly involved defective couplers which were the primary danger the SAA meant to address, and therefore, Union Pacific argues any issue with couplers must be covered by the SAA, especially since they relate to actual train movement. Id. at 33. Further, Union Pacific claims that the other cases cited by LeDure either address interstate commerce questions or were based upon the unique characteristics of using railcars under the SAA and hence inapplicable to understanding “use” under the LIA. Id. at 33–35. Also, Union Pacific asserts that Lilly, the one Supreme Court decision cited by LeDure on the LIA, supports only tenders being in “use” while waiting to be refueled due to the unique dangers posed in such activities not relevant to locomotives. Id. at 38.
Instead, Union Pacific argues that lower courts generally interpret “use” of railcars and trains under the SAA to not be “in use” while awaiting inspections and to be connected with the rest of the train for departure. Id. at 35. Union Pacific claims that multiple regulations and case law confirms inspections must be completed before locomotives come into “use.” Id. at 36. Further, Union Pacific maintains that courts historically have found preparation for “use” not to fall under “use” of locomotives in the LIA. Id. at 39. Therefore, since UP5683 remained disconnected on a side track and awaiting inspections and preparations for travel, Union Pacific argues the UP5683 remained out of “use” even if stopped in the middle of a journey, especially since the worker became injured in the process of turning off the locomotive. Id. at 43–45. Also, Union Pacific asserts that “allowed to be used” does not change the analysis as the provision was designed to address locomotives in other contexts and still requires the locomotive to be “used” at the time of the injury. Id. at 30.
THE POTENTIAL FOR ABRUPT SHIFTS IN EXPECTATIONS
In support of Petitioner, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division (“SMART-TD”), the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (“BLET”), and Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys (“ARLA”) (collectively “SMART-TD”) discuss Congress’s goal to establish a uniform framework for protecting rail workers, arguing that judicial precedent is critical for upholding those standards. Brief of Amici Curiae, SMART-TD, BLET, and ARLA, in support of Petitioner at 17. SMART-TD argues that the Seventh Circuit’s ruling represents a reinterpretation of the law in violation of precedent. Id. To SMART-TD, following precedent is important in the abstract, as it ensures stability and predictability in the law. Id. at 27. SMART-TD points out that Congress has had opportunities to weigh in on the appropriate interpretation of “in use,” but it has declined to, and thus argues that following the Seventh Circuit’s application would not promote stability or predictability. Id. at 17. Predicting impact to individual rights and expectations, SMART-TD expresses concern about future uncertainty in the lower courts, contending that railroad workers will be exposed to increased hazards without appropriate remedies as a result. Id. at 28.
Respondent Union Pacific counters these predictions, rejecting outright the notion that the district court’s read of “in use” violates precedent. Brief for Respondent, Union Pacific at 32. Union Pacific states that the lower court and Seventh Circuit correctly applied precedent, making concerns about abrupt shifts in jurisprudence unfounded. Id. at 14. Moreover, Union Pacific contends that a “century of practice” affirms their position, and thus any reversal would itself “wreak havoc” with the expectations of railroad companies and employees alike. Id. at 4–5, 40.
IMPACTS ON WORKERS SAFETY
In support of Petitioner, SMART-TD argues that narrowing what qualifies as “in use” would eliminate protections for train crews. Brief of Amici Curiae, SMART-TD, BLET, and ARLA, in support of Petitioner at 19. SMART-TD points out that most train-workers’ tasks take place in railroad yards, and that these facilities and the work rail-workers perform are unique. Id. SMART-TD underscores this by elaborating on what occurs in these locations—where trains get inspected, taken apart, and then reassembled—and point out that employees are statistically more likely to be injured when working on locomotives that are not moving. Id. at 20. Given this, SMART-TD argues that the narrow interpretation of “in use” would constrain when safety measures for workers can be invoked—excluding instances when workers are seemingly most vulnerable. Id. at 21.
Respondent Union Pacific downplays any such risk, insisting rail-workers already have extensive options for seeking remedies if injured at work. Brief for Respondent, Union Pacific at 39. Union Pacific argues existing coverage includes situations when locomotives are not in active service, including when there are defects in important safety appliances—the most likely context for accidents in situations similar to this one. Id. at 40. The Association of American Railroads (“AAR”), supporting Union Pacific, agrees, rejecting the possibility that railroad safety laws will be nullified or that injured railroad employees will have problems getting compensated. Brief of Amici Curiae, Association of American Railroads, in support of Respondent at 18. AAR argues employees have adequate protections and remedies if injured. Id. at 19. Regarding the immediate situation, Union Pacific suggests LeDure was responsible for inspecting UP5683, and that it was unrealistic to expect railroad companies to “isolate every locomotive from conditions that might introduce a small spot of oil.” Id. Building on this point, Union Pacific believes that, should the Supreme Court rule in LeDure’s favor, parked and “theoretically available” locomotives would need to be inspected daily—an impractical task. Id. at 43. Further, needing to distinguish between repair locations and other facilities would inconvenience rail companies, Union Pacific contends, leading to business inefficiencies and downstream supply chain issues. Id. at 42. The Chamber of Commerce largely concurs with these concerns about adverse effects on the nation’s commerce, also warning that dealing with these impractical changes would come with new safety risks. Brief of Amicus Curiae, Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, in support of Respondent at 14.
- Daniel Wiessner, SCOTUS to Decide if Stopped Train Is ‘In Use’ Under Labor Law, Reuters (Dec. 15, 2021)
- Daniel Wiessner, SCOTUS to DOJ: Is a Stopped Train In Use? Unions Want to Know, Reuters (May 17, 2021)
- Emily Brill, Industry Group Backs Railroads In Injury Suit At High Court, Law360