Norfolk & Western Railway Company v. Hiles - Oral Argument - January 08, 1996

Norfolk & Western Railway Company v. Hiles

Media for Norfolk & Western Railway Company v. Hiles

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 27, 1996 in Norfolk & Western Railway Company v. Hiles

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 08, 1996 in Norfolk & Western Railway Company v. Hiles

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in No. 95-6, Norfolk and Western Railway Company v. William J. Hiles.

Mr. Phillips.

Carter G. Phillips:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case involves the proper interpretation of section 2 of the Safety Appliance Act, which is quoted on page 2 of the petitioner's brief, and which states that it shall be unlawful for a railroad to use on its line... excuse me... any car not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and which can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going between the ends of the cars.

In this case the respondent, a switchman at the rail yard in St. Louis, Missouri, injured his back while attempting to pull a drawbar into alignment that had become misaligned almost certainly as a consequence of having been disconnected from a prior car on a curve.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Phillips, was the drawbar technology essentially the same at the time the statute was enacted as it is today?

Carter G. Phillips:

Yes, Justice O'Connor.

I don't think there's much in the way of a significant advance since 1893.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And so at the time that the statute we're reviewing was adopted, it was necessary for the drawbar to be physically adjusted at times between the cars.

Carter G. Phillips:

Yes, Justice O'Connor, I believe that's correct.

As the D.C. Circuit said in the Lewis case, that if you accept the notion that any misaligned drawbar violates the Safety Appliance Act, then every railroad has been in noncompliance with that act since 1898 when it went into effect, which means that every railroad has been subject since 1898 to $100 fines for every such violation, which might have actually saved the Federal Government its budget problems today, but clearly would have done so on the back of the railroads in ways I don't think Congress intended.

What we have here is an injury that falls far afield from what Congress had in mind in 1893 when it acted to protect railroad workers from the possibility of being crushed between railroad cars as a consequence of the old-fashioned link and coupling devices used.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Could you just refresh my memory?

If the employee doesn't recover in this suit, what recovery does he have?

Is there a workmen's compensation scheme?

Carter G. Phillips:

There's the Federal Employers' Liability Act that would have been available to him had he chosen to bring that action.

That, of course--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Can he still bring that action?

Carter G. Phillips:

--I would assume at this stage it's too late, that the statute of limitations would have run.

It seems to me it was a conscious choice by the employee in this case to bring this action exclusively under the Safety Appliance Act and to do so to obtain the benefits under State law, the--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Do you have to show some negligence under FELA?

Carter G. Phillips:

--He would have to show some negligence under FELA, and respondent has steadfastly avoided any effort to attempt to do that in this case.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

So, if there's an on-the-job injury with no negligence, is there ever a workmen's compensation scheme?

Carter G. Phillips:

Not to my knowledge, no, Your Honor.

The required negligence... it's the only scheme that stands out in this particular way.

On the other hand, of course, unlike most workers' compensation schemes, where there is a fairly fixed cap on the recovery, there's no similar cap on the recovery under FELA.

As a consequence of that, employees tend to get significant recoveries.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The Jones Act picks up on the same thing.

So, it's for seamen as well as railroad workers.

Carter G. Phillips:

The seamen have the same... that's correct, Justice Ginsburg.