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Ward v. Soo Line Railroad Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 27, 2018

Ronald Ward, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Soo Line Railroad Company, doing business as Canadian Pacific, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued May 16, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 14-CV-00001 - Rudy Lozano, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Sykes, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         Ronald Ward injured his shoulder and back when his seat collapsed in the train he was operating. Ward is a U.S. resident who is employed by a U.S. railroad. Normally, these facts could give rise to a lawsuit under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. Because Ward's seat collapsed across the border in Ontario, however, the FELA does not apply. Instead, Ward pursued his tort claims under state common law. Ruling on the defendants' motions to dismiss and for judgment on the pleadings for failure to state a claim, the district court rejected Ward's claims by holding that another federal law, the Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq., preempted all state tort law remedies for injuries caused by locomotive equipment.

         We see the case differently on the merits of the preemption defense, but we ultimately affirm the judgment. The federal railroad-safety statutes left plaintiff one path that is viable and not preempted: He could assert state-law tort claims against the defendants that borrow the applicable standards of care from the federal LIA and its regulations governing the safety of locomotive equipment. This is a well-established path for fitting state and federal law together. See Delaware & Hudson Railway Co., Inc. v. Knoedler Manufacturers, Inc., 781 F.3d 656, 662 (3d Cir. 2015) (LIA does not preempt state common-law claims seeking to redress violations of federal standard of care mandated by LIA and its regulations). Plaintiff pursued this viable theory in the district court, but in pursuing his appeal, he has waived any claim based on this theory.

         The district court dismissed Ward's claims on the pleadings, so we review its decisions de novo, giving Ward the benefit of all well-pleaded factual allegations in his complaints and reasonable inferences from them. See, e.g., Matrix IV, Inc. v. American Nat'l Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago, 649 F.3d 539, 547 (7th Cir. 2011). To explain our decision, we examine in Part I the relevant federal statutes and the precedents governing their relationships with state tort law. In Part II, we turn to the merits of the district court's judgment, explaining why the court erred in part on the scope of the preemption defense and why plaintiffs in Ward's position should be allowed to pursue the one viable path open to them. Finally, in Part III, we turn to the procedural history of this lawsuit and address defendants' arguments that Ward waived that one viable path.

         I. Remedies for Injured Railroad Workers

         A. The Common Law Before the Federal Statutes

         Before Congress passed the FELA in 1908, injured railroad workers brought common-law tort actions in state or federal courts to recover for their injuries. See, e.g., Texas & Pacific Railway Co. v. Cox, 145 U.S. 593, 604-06 (1892) (recognizing ability of Texas courts to provide relief under Louisiana's wrongful death statute for an injury occurring in Louisiana); Dennick v. Railroad Co. of New Jersey, 103 U.S. 11, 18 (1880) (recognizing that "[a] party legally liable [for a transitory tort] in New Jersey cannot escape that liability by going to New York").

         Under principles prevailing at the time, the Supreme Court required federal courts hearing these common-law tort cases to apply the rule of lex loci delicti, meaning that the substantive law applied in any given case was the law of the state where the plaintiff's injury occurred. Slater v. Mexican Nat'l Railroad Co., 194 U.S. 120, 126 (1904). Given the interstate and international nature of railroad employment, the nineteenth-century laws of different states-not to mention the laws of Canada and Mexico-posed obstacles not only for litigants but also for courts determining which law to apply and how to apply it. These problems landed on the Supreme Court docket with some regularity, so the Court developed a general federal common law on these matters in the era predating Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), which eliminated the federal general common law and instructed federal courts hearing state law claims to apply state law as determined by the relevant state courts. See Slater, 194 U.S. at 121 (choice of law between Texas and Mexico); Stewart v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co., 168 U.S. 445, 448-49 (1897) (between Maryland and District of Columbia); Texas & Pacific Railway Co., 145 U.S. at 603 (between Texas and Louisiana); Dennick, 103 U.S. at 18 (between New York and New Jersey).

         B. The Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA)

         In 1908, Congress enacted the FELA, 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq., which created a uniform law to govern injuries to railroad workers in the United States. Under the FELA, all railroad injuries are treated as negligence actions that apply a federal standard of care. § 51; New York Central Railroad Co. v. Winfield, 244 U.S. 147, 150-51 (1917). The FELA also replaced or abolished certain defenses that might bar recovery under the common law. For example, the FELA allows recovery for wrongful death, which previously had been recognized only haphazardly under a patchwork of common-law rules and statutes. See Dennick, 103 U.S. at 21 ("The right to recover for an injury to the person, resulting in death, is of very recent origin, and depends wholly upon statutes of the different States.").

         Among its substantive changes to tort law, the FELA also bars employers from asserting as an absolute defense that the employee-plaintiff "assumed the risks of his employment," § 54, or that an employer should not be held liable for injuries resulting from the negligence of an injured employee-plaintiff's co-workers, §§ 51, 52. The FELA also replaces contributory negligence as an absolute defense with a comparative negligence regime under which a plaintiff-employee's damages are reduced "in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to such employee." § 53. And the FELA provides even greater protection where the plaintiff proves that a railroad company's violation of any statute or regulation "enacted for the safety of employees contributed to the injury or death." Id. In those cases, the company is liable for the full amount of loss, notwithstanding the injured worker's negligence. §§ 53, 54.

         To enforce the FELA, Congress relied upon both state and federal courts, granting concurrent jurisdiction to both. Two years after enacting the FELA, Congress mandated that a plaintiff's choice of forum would control. Congress amended the FELA to bar removal of FELA actions from state court to federal court. FELA Amendments, Pub. L. No. 117, 36 Stat. 291 (1910). The substance of that removal bar is now codified in 28 U.S.C. § 1445(a).

         From the beginning of the FELA era, then, Congress envisioned a robust role for the states and their courts in vindicating the federal rights of injured railroad workers. Since the FELA did not mandate specific procedural rules, state courts hearing FELA actions may follow their own rules of procedure but must take care that these requirements do not burden a plaintiff's federal rights under the Act. See, e.g., Dice v. Akron, Canton & Youngstown Railroad Co., 342 U.S. 359, 363 (1952) ("the right to trial by jury is too substantial a part of the rights accorded by the Act to permit it to be classified as a mere 'local rule of procedure'"); Brown v. Western Railway of Alabama, 338 U.S. 294, 298 (1949) ("Strict local rules of pleading cannot be used to impose unnecessary burdens upon rights of recovery authorized by federal laws."); Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211, 218 (1916) (recognizing the "concurrent power and duty of both Federal and state courts to administer the rights conferred by the statute in accordance with the modes of procedure prevailing in such courts").

         C. The Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act (LIA)

         In 1911, Congress followed the FELA by passing the Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq., which regulates the safety of locomotive equipment. Like the FELA, the LIA provided a national solution to a legal problem posed by railroads-this time displacing states' haphazard safety regulations of locomotive equipment with a uniform federal law. The LIA provides:

A railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive or tender on its railroad line only when the locomotive or tender and its parts and appurtenances-
(1) are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury;
(2) have been inspected as required under this chapter and regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Transportation ...

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