Supreme Court rejects changing light causation standard relevant to Jones Act claims

by Matthew H. Ammerman on June 24th, 2011

The Jones Act incorporates the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), which applies to railroad workers’ injuries. The Supreme Court issued a 5 to 4 opinion on June 23, 2011, endorsing a jury instruction that a railroad’s negligence should be considered to have caused an injury “no matter how small [the cause] in bringing about the injury.” In a thoughtful dissent, Chief Justice Roberts reasons that the majority read too much into a 1957 case and disregards common sense and common law. CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 4795, 8-9 (June 23, 2011). However, Justice Ginsberg’s majority opinion repeats an earlier holding that the causation standard applicable to the railroad must also apply to the worker’s contributory negligence. Therefore, the standard cuts both ways. If a worker’s negligence plays a part in his injury – no matter how small – that cause should also be considered in assigning percentage of fault.

Robert McBride was a locomotive engineer for CSX Transportation, Inc. McBride hurt his hand over the course of a day using a train’s independent, hand-operated brake made difficult by heavy, wide-body engines on the locomotive. He was awarded $275,000 less his 33% contributory negligence. CSX argued that the common law concept of proximate cause should apply, such that the railroad would be liable only if the injury was a natural or probable sequence of its negligence. The majority of the court disagreed and adhered to the Rogers case, a 1957 opinion that held a locomotive passing and fanning a grassfire that led to an fleeing worker's slip-and-fall could be a cause under FELA. Justice Ginsberg says in a footnote that to unsettle the law would buck the fundamental legal principle of following case precedent (stare decisis). In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts says the majority ignores precedent prior to 1957 applying a more strict causation standard and unnecessarily opens the door for any remote cause to support liability.

The 2006 Jones Act pattern jury instruction issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is often deferred to, does not include the “no matter how small” gloss. It instead adheres to the statutory language: “Under the Jones Act, if the employer's negligent act caused the plaintiff's injury, in whole or in part, then you must find that the employer is liable under the Jones Act.”

In addition, keep in mind that the Supreme Court four years ago held in a plurality opinion that the same causation standard applicable to the railroad’s negligence should be applicable to the worker’s contributory negligence. Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. Sorrell, 549 U.S. 158, 173 (2007). Justice Ginsberg’s opinion does nothing to disturb that holding and in fact repeats it: “In Sorrell, the Court held that the causation standard was the same for railroad negligence and employee contributory negligence, but said nothing about what that standard should be.” McBride at fn. 1. Slight causation is a double-edged sword.

CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 4795 (June 23, 2011).

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