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OP-ED: FELA Does Not Require Proximate Cause To Be Proven For a Finding Of Liability Against an Employer

By Philip C. Brickman 12-17-2012 01:25:00

by Philip C. Brickman, Partner, Fowler Rodriguez Valdes-Fauli

Although this case refers to railroad carriers and not vessel carriers, the case is very relevant to the maritime industry because the Jones Act incorporates the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) by reference for purposes of recovery for death or personal injury of seamen. (1)

The United States Supreme Court recently affirmed the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judgment on the issue of causation under the FELA.(2)  The Supreme Court held that under FELA, an injury is caused by the railroad’s negligence if that negligence played a part—no matter how small—in causing the injury to the employee. The Supreme Court considered FELA’s text and purpose (3),  its prior decision in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co.(4)  and the uniform view of the federal appellate courts (5) to ultimately conclude that FELA does not incorporate the “proximate cause” standards developed in non-statutory common-law tort actions.

While working for a railroad company (“Employer”), a locomotive engineer (“Employee”) injured his hand in the process of adding and removing individual rail cars (known as switching) by using a hand-operated independent brake. The Employee filed suit against the Employer under FELA arguing that the Employer was negligent because: (i) he required the Employee to use unsafe switching equipment; (6) and (ii) he failed to train the Employee to operate that equipment.

The district court employed the Seventh Circuit’s standard of causation for FELA cases which is based upon the Supreme Court’s decision in Rogers and instructed the jury that the Employer “caused or contributed” to the Employee’s injury “if [his negligence] played a part—no matter how small—in bringing about the injury.” The Employer requested additional jury charges stating that the Employee is required demonstrate that the Employer’s negligence was a “proximate cause” of the injury. (7) However, the district court declined the Employer’s request, and the jury returned a verdict for the Employee. The Employer appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

On appeal, the Employer renewed its objection to the district court’s failure to render instructions on proximate cause.  The Court of Appeal approved the district court’s instructions and affirmed the jury’s verdict holding that Rogers had relaxed the proximate cause requirement in FELA cases, and thus, an instruction that simply paraphrased Rogers’ language was not declared erroneous.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether the causation instruction endorsed by the Seventh Circuit was proper in FELA cases.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit decision holding that the language used by the district court tracked the language of Rogers. The Supreme Court held that in FELA cases, it is not an error to refuse a jury charge with stock proximate cause terminology instructions. Juries in such cases are properly instructed that a defendant railroad “caused or contributed to” a railroad worker’s injury “if the railroad’s negligence played a part—no matter how small—in bringing about the injury.” The Supreme Court noted that there is little reason for courts to hark back to stock, judge-made proximate-cause formulations when the legislative text uses legalistic language ( e.g. “resulting in whole or in part from,”) and the legislative purpose is to loosen constraints on recovery.

The Employer contended that Rogers was a narrowly focused decision that did not displace common-law formulations of “proximate cause.” (8) The Employer urged that Rogers’ “any part” test displaced only common-law restrictions on recovery for injuries involving contributory negligence or other multiple causes. Rogers did not address the requisite directness of a cause. The Court denied the Employer’s argument holding that Rogers is most sensibly read as a comprehensive statement of FELA’s causation standard. The Court recognized that in Rogers it rejected the natural and probable requisite causation standard (proximate cause) and instructed that the test to determine causation in FELA cases is whether the “employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury.” If Congress disagreed with this test, it could have corrected it in the past fifty years, but has not done so. To discard or restrict Rogers’ instruction would show scant respect for the principle of stare decisis.

The Employer also contended that Rogers’ “any part” instruction opens the door to unlimited liability. (9) The Supreme Court rejected the Employer’s argument holding that the Employer could not identify one trial in which the instruction generated an absurd or unsupported award since the Rogers decision. (10) Moreover, the Supreme Court noted that Rogers’ instruction uses the everyday words contained in FELA itself, allowing jurors to comprehend those words and apply them in light of their experience and common sense. The Supreme Court also clarified that although “foreseeability” of harm is an essential ingredient of FELA negligence, if negligence is proven and is shown to have “played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury,” then the carrier is answerable in damages even if “the extent of the injury or the manner in which it occurred was not probable or foreseeable.” Thus, the Supreme Court held that juries properly instructed on negligence and causation and also advised to use common sense in reviewing the evidence, would have no reason to award damages in wide-reaching “but for” scenarios. The Supreme Court also explained that FELA’s limitations on who may sue, and for what, also reduce the risk of exorbitant liability. (11)

This case unifies the standard of causation for FELA cases and is controlling authority for personal injury or death of seamen cases. Based on this decision, it can be argued that a plaintiff injured by a railroad carrier does not have the common-law burden to prove proximate cause between the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s injury. Rather, a court will likely instruct a jury that the defendant is answerable for damages if his negligence played a part—no matter how small—in bringing the plaintiff’s injury.  The proximate cause standard has been relaxed in Rogers. This case seems to clarify that a seaman need only prove slight negligence on the part of the employer in carrying out his or her duties in order to hold their employer liable for damages. 

Please contact Phil Brickman at (504) 523-2600 or pbrickman@frvf-law.com for further information on these issues.

Citations:

  1.   See 46 U.S.C. § 30104
  2.   45 U.S.C. §51 et seq.

  3. FELA renders railroads liable for employees’ injuries or deaths “resulting in whole or in part from [railroad] negligence.” (emphasis added). See 45 U.S.C. §51.

  4. 352 U.S. 500, 77 S. Ct. 443, 1L. Ed. 2d 493 (1957) (In Rogers the United States Supreme Court held that “[U]nder FELA the test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify with reason the conclusion that the employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury”) (emphasis added).

  5. The Court noted that all five Circuits that have published pattern FELA causation instructions use the language of [FELA] or of Rogers rather than traditional common-law formulations.

  6. The train the Employee operated had an unusual engine configuration (two wide-body engines) that the Employee protested to be unsafe because switching with heavy wide-body engines required constant use of hand-operated independent brake.

  7. The Employer defined proximate cause as “as any cause which, in natural or probable sequence, produced the injury complained of.”

  8. The Employer’s view was also shared by the dissent.

  9. The dissent also shared this concern.

  10. The dissent also failed to uncover such a case.

  11. FELA confines compensable injuries to those sustained by employees, during employment. See 45 § 51 U.S.C. (“Every common carrier . . . shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier . . . .”) Therefore, the Court noted that there are no unforeseeable plaintiffs in FELA cases and FELA removes those injuries occurring outside the workplace.  

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.