On June 23, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that a railroad employee seeking to recover for a work-related injury under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) need only demonstrate that the railroad’s negligence played “any part” in the injury, thus rejecting the railroad’s view that proximate cause is required. CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, No. 10-235.

In 2004, Plaintiff Robert McBride, a locomotive engineer, employed by interstate railroad CSX Transportation, was assigned to a local run between Indiana and Illinois involving frequent starts and stops to add and remove individual train cars. McBride complained that the engine configuration, which required use of a hand-operated independent brake, was unsafe, but he was instructed to take the train as is. During the run, McBride severely injured his hand while operating the brake.

McBride sought to recover damages for his injury under FELA, which provides that “[e]very common carrier by railroad . . . shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier . . . for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier . . . .” 45 U.S.C. § 51 (emphasis added). He alleged that CSX acted negligently in requiring him to use unsafe equipment and failing to train him properly on that equipment. At trial, CSX asked the district court for a jury instruction requiring McBride to “show that . . . [CSX’s] negligence was a proximate cause of the injury,” and defined “proximate cause” as “any cause which, in natural or probable sequence, produced the injury complained of.” The district court declined to give this instruction and instead, relying on a Seventh Circuit pattern instruction, instructed the jury that CSX “‘caused or contributed to’ Plaintiff’s injury if [CSX’s] negligence played a part – no matter how small – in bringing about the injury.” The jury found for McBride and awarded him $275,000, less one-third for his own negligence. CSX appealed, arguing that “proximate cause” is the correct standard for causation under FELA.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the verdict, and the Supreme Court agreed. Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Thomas, ruled that the “caused or contributed to” standard was the standard prescribed by Congress in FELA. The Court noted that an earlier Supreme Court decision, Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U.S. 500 (1957), had held that under FELA, a railroad employee must only prove that the railroad’s negligence “played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought.” Here, the Seventh Circuit pattern jury instruction given by the district court tracked this language. Although CSX argued that Rogers was a narrow decision that did not address the requisite directness of a cause, the Court disagreed, concluding that Rogers is most sensibly read as a comprehensive statement of the FELA causation standard. Moreover, the Court pointed out that this interpretation of Rogers has been accepted as settled law for decades, and each federal circuit court to consider the issue has approved a pattern jury instruction based on its language. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the verdict in favor of McBride.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito dissented, arguing that nothing in FELA or Rogers supports the “boundless theory of liability” embraced by the majority. Roberts, further, argued in dissent that the majority was allowing employees to recover for injuries that were not proximately caused by the negligence of their employers. Roberts concluded, “A new maxim has replaced the old: Caelum terminus est—the sky’s the limit.”

While the Court’s decision clarified the causation standard, it also increases the burden on employers in this industry faced with defending against claims by employees who seek compensation for injuries sustained in the course of their employment.