The United States Supreme Court today reaffirmed application of the “featherweight” causation standard in Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) cases.  In CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, the Supreme Court held under FELA that “featherweight” or “any part” causation rather than typical concepts of proximate causation apply.  Because seamen’s negligence claims under the Jones Act follow the same FELA standards, the consequence will be that the “featherweight” causation standard will continue to apply in those cases as well.

Under the “featherweight” or “any part” standard, the test for causation is simply whether the employer’s negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury for which damages are sought.  That the injury may be attributable to other causes, including the employee’s contributory negligence, is irrelevant.  It also does not matter whether the extent of the injury, or the manner in which it occurred, was foreseeable.  Because the plaintiff can successfully prove liability by showing the defendant’s negligence played a part, no matter how small, in bringing about the injury, this causation standard is not difficult to satisfy.  In contrast, proximate causation, which was developed in common-law tort actions, is a more rigorous standard.  Traditionally, under proximate causation, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s negligence directly produced the injury, and that the injury was the foreseeable and probable consequence of that negligence.  Under this standard, the plaintiff’s burden is higher and causation is much more difficult to prove.

In McBride, the defendant interstate railroad argued that the traditional formulation of proximate cause should apply to FELA cases.  The Supreme Court disagreed.  Relying on its 1957 decision in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., the Court reaffirmed that the “featherweight” or “any part” test is the causation standard that Congress prescribed and reiterated that this relaxed standard of causation is applicable in FELA cases.

Under the Jones Act, a seaman may bring a negligence action for personal injuries suffered in the course of employment. The Act provides that the statute governing personal injury suits brought by railway employees, FELA, applies to Jones Act cases. Thus, the case law that governs FELA cases also applies to Jones Act cases.  While McBride involved a railway worker’s FELA claim, we anticipate seamen bringing claims under the Jones Act will point to the Supreme Court’s discussion in McBride in arguing that “featherweight” causation would continue to apply.  Consequently, the Supreme Court’s decision only serves to reinforce an already challenging standard for American-flagged vessel operators.

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Keesal, Young & Logan Maritime Law Group

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