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7th Circuit Affirms Discharged Railroad Worker’s Injury Lawsuit

By Jack H. FarnbauchNovember 15, 2018

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of a train operator’s state common law claims for relief against a railroad company for injuries caused by locomotive equipment.

Ronald Ward injured his shoulder and back when his seat collapsed in the train he was operating in Ontario. Because Ward’s seat collapsed across the border, filing a lawsuit under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) did not apply.

Ward pursued his tort claims under state law instead. On appeal, Ward asserted the viable theory of state-law tort claims against Soo Line Railroad Company, doing business as Canadian Pacific, that borrow the applicable standards of care from another federal law, the Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act (LIA), and its regulations governing the safety of locomotive equipment.

The district court rejected Ward’s claims by holding that the LIA pre-empted all state tort law remedies for injuries caused by locomotive equipment.

The 7th Circuit noted that although it viewed the case differently on the merits of the pre-emption defense than the district court, it affirmed that FELA did not apply in Ronald Ward v. Soo Line Railroad Company, 17-2150. because the accident occurred in Canada, and FELA does not apply to accidents outside of the United States.

“But that limit on the civil remedy under the FELA does not bar a plaintiff who is not covered by the FELA from relying on the LIA to establish the standard of care that applied to the defendants as part of a state-law tort claim,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the panel’s Monday opinion. 

In its determination, the 7th Circuit found that states may still borrow the federal standard of care from the LIA so that violations of federal law can be redressed through state common-law claims where FELA does not apply. It also found that Congress has provided no independent private right to sue for LIA violations in federal court.

Furthermore, the 7th Circuit found that Ward waived his viable theory claims on appeal when he did not press on appeal his Delaware & Hudson Railway Co., Inc. v. Knoedler Manufacturers, Inc., 781 F.3d 656, 662 (3d Cir. 2015) argument for avoiding LIA pre-emption by borrowing the LIA standard of care.

Citing Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., 565 U.S. 625, 637 (2012), the 7th Circuit found that the Supreme Court held that state-law claims of defective design and failure to warn were in fact pre-empted under the LIA. Therefore, state regulation of locomotive equipment could not diverge from the standards of care mandated by the LIA, pushing state courts to prevent independent state policy from interfering with federal policy on the regulation of locomotive equipment.

“He pursued only an argument that the defendants failed to provide adequate warnings of the defective seat,” the 7th Circuit wrote. “In oral argument, counsel for Ward made clear, repeatedly, that the only live claims on appeal are those for failure to warn. Those claims are plainly pre-empted under Kurns … .”

In his appellate brief, Ward cited Rogers v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 948 F.2d 858 (2d Cir. 1991), aff’g 688 F. Supp. 835 (N.D.N.Y. 1988), and Priestman v. Canadian Pacific, Ltd., 782 F. Supp. 681 (D. Maine 1992), which both allowed railroad workers injured in Canada to pursue remedies under state law. But the 7th Circuit found that neither case addressed LIA preemption, and neither adopted or hinted at the reasoning that could provide Ward with a viable path to recovery.

“His reliance on those cases therefore did not work as a backhand way of raising and arguing his one viable path to recovery under the reasoning of Delaware & Hudson, using federal law to supply the standard of care under state common law.”

You can read more about this case here.