McBride v. CSX: Supreme Court's Decision a Blow to Railroads or Mixed Bag?

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"Caelum terminus est — the sky's the limit." In McBride v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 564 U.S. ___ (June 23, 2011). Chief Justice John Roberts concludes his dissent to the majority's rejection of proximate cause in the Federal Employers Liability Act (railroad worker) lawsuits with those dire words. FELA lawyers will now watch with interest to see whether the causation required for FELA liability is in practice as boundless as suggested by the top figure in our justice system.

The crux of McBride is proximate cause, which the Court defines as a philosophical concept requiring some foreseeability between the injurious conduct and the injury. The majority rejected proximate cause because the language of the FELA is broad and imposes liability whenever a plaintiff's injury "result[s] in whole or in part from the [carrier's] negligence." The majority deemed this result consistent with an unbroken line of U.S. Court of Appeals holdings since the early-1900s enactment of the FELA.

But the McBride majority stopped short of rejecting "but for causation," and specifically invoked the importance of "common sense" to juries' causation determinations. The majority also acknowledged that foreseeability does have a place in FELA liability calculus, just that it lies in the realm of duty rather than causation.

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