Supreme Court Limits Where Injured Railway Workers Can Sue Railroad Employers

Unlike most workers, railway employees cannot bring workers compensation claims when they are injured on the job. Their sole remedy against their employer is to bring a lawsuit under a special statute known as the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). This law provides in part that injured railway workers may bring their lawsuits in any district where the railroad  is “doing business” when the lawsuit if commenced. FELA also provides that state as well as federal courts may hear FELA cases. Based on this language, many courts and plaintiffs have taken the position that FELA lawsuits can be brought in the courts of any state where the railroad is doing business.

In BNSF Railway Company v. Tyrell, which was decided on May 30, 2017, however, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution limits the states where non-resident workers may bring FELA lawsuits to states where the railroad has such contacts with the state that it may reasonably be deemed to be “at home” in that state. The paradigm examples of where a railway company is “at home” are the states where it is incorporated or it has its principal place of business. The court also recognized that there may be other “exceptional cases” where a company may be at home, but shed little light on what would constitute such an exceptional case, although it failed to find such circumstances in this case.

This decision involved two FELA cases that were brought in state court in Montana. In neither case did the plaintiffs live, work or sustain their injuries in Montana.   One plaintiff, Robert Nelson, was a North Dakota resident who sought to recover  compensation for knee injuries he sustained while working as a fuel truck driver for BNSF. The other plaintiff, Kelli Tyrrell,  was a widow who alleged that her late husband died from kidney cancer as a result of his exposure to toxic chemicals while he was working for the railroad. Both plaintiffs unsuccessfully cited the extent of BNSF’s operations in Montana where it had more than 2000 miles of track and over 2000 employees.

Although the Court in recent years has been taking a more limited view of where lawsuits may be brought, the plaintiffs in this decision tried to argue that FELA cases were different than other lawsuits, and that Congress, in enacting FELA, had attempted to give injured railway workers a broad choice of where to bring suit. These arguments were rejected by the court, signaling a much more limited range of states where railway workers may sue their employers for personal injuries.

The court did not address the question of whether the railroad had “consented” (agreed) to be sued in Montana because that issue had not been addressed in state court, leaving that question to be resolved at a later time.    

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