Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sorrell

PETITIONER: Norfolk Southern Railway Company
RESPONDENT: Timothy Sorrell
LOCATION: Carhart's Residence

DOCKET NO.: 05-746
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 549 US 158 (2007)
GRANTED: May 15, 2006
ARGUED: Oct 10, 2006
DECIDED: Jan 10, 2007

ADVOCATES:
Carter G. Phillips - argued the cause for Petitioner
Mary L. Perry - argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

Sorrell, an employee of Norfolk Southern Railway, crashed his company truck while swerving to avoid another company truck. Sorrell suffered injuries and sued Norfolk Southern for damages under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). Both Sorrell and the railroad had been negligent in the incident to some extent. Norfolk Southern argued that under the FELA, the "causation standard" - the standard for assigning the blame for an incident - was the same for both the employee and the railroad. According to Norfolk Southern, any damages awarded to Sorrell for the railroad's negligence had to be reduced by the amount of the damages that was attributable to Sorrell's own negligence. (If Sorrell was 60% responsible for the accident, for example, the damages would be reduced by 60%.)

The trial ruled instead that the causation standards were different: the railroad was responsible for any negligence that contributed to the accident, but the employee was only responsible for negligence that directly caused damage. Under this more lenient standard for employee negligence, the trial court awarded Sorrell $1.5 million.

The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed. The Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but the U.S. Supreme Court granted review.

Question

Is the causation standard for employee negligence under the Federal Employers Liability Act different from the causation standard for railroad negligence?

Media for Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sorrell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 10, 2006 in Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sorrell

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 10, 2007 in Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sorrell

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have the opinion in case number 05-746, Norfolk Southern Railway Company versus Sorrell.

Timothy Sorrell was injured while working for Norfolk Southern a railroad and he sued Norfolk under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) makes railroads liable to their employees for injuries resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of the railroad.

Norfolk claimed that Sorrell’s own negligence was the cause of his injuries.

FELA does not bar relief if the employee is also negligent but instead reduces damages in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to the employee.

Sorrell was awarded $1.5 million in damages by a jury but Norfolk objected to the instructions given to the jury on the ground that they contain different causation standards for railroad negligence and employee contributory negligence.

Missouri is apparently the only state to employ different causations standards under FELA and Norfolk argued that the standard should be the same under the act regardless of whether you are considering railroad or employee negligence.

In an opinion filed today with the clerk we agree that common-law the same standard of causation was used for both negligence and contributory negligence.

Nowhere in the statute is there any suggestion that FELA meant to depart from this common-law practice and it would be strange to apply different standards of causation to each party’s negligence when under the act the negligence of the parties must be compared by the jury to determine damages.

We conclude that the act does not abrogate the common-law approach and that the same standard of causation applies to railroad negligence as the plaintiff’s contributory negligence.

In briefing ended argument Norfolk asked us to decide what that causation standard should be but when it petition for certiorari, when it asked us to review the case it only raised the issue of whether the standard should be the same.

That’s the only issue on which we granted review and it’s the only one we are going to decide.

Sorrell maintains that even if the jury instructions were improper any error was harmless because the evidence of his negligence presented a trial could not lead to a different result even with corrected instructions.

We leave that issue to the State Court on remand to consider.

We therefore vacate the judgment of the Missouri Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings.

Justice Souter has filed a concurring opinion which Justices Scalia and Alito have joined.

Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.