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U.S. Supreme Court Rules On State Venues For Personal Injury Cases

The highest court in the land has overturned a court in Montana’s ruling that allowed two personal injury cases to be filed in Montana by railroad workers against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), although neither had worked in the state. BNSF has been operating for over 150 years and has in excess of 40,000 employees. Last year, the Montana Supreme Court decided that railroad workers could file injury claims in any state that their employer does business. BNSF had argued that the Montana ruling was allowing plaintiffs to choose where to file their claims based on which state’s laws were most favorable for them. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that states would not have jurisdiction over railroad firms that have their headquarters in another state. Justice Ginsburg explained that claims against BSNF would need to be filed in Texas, which is where they are based, in accordance with the 14th amendment. The court ruled 8-1, and the decision may have a large impact on future injury cases.

Two separate plaintiffs filed suits against BNSF for injuries they incurred in accordance with the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a law permitting employees of railroad companies to pursue civil actions against their organizations. Robert Nelson, a BNSF truck driver and resident of South Dakota pursued a slip-and-fall injury case in Montana for an incident that occurred in Washington State. Kelli Tyrrel, the wife of a deceased BNSF employee and resident of South Dakota, filed a suit in Montana claiming that her husband’s death was caused by exposure to dangerous chemicals while on the job. Tyrell’s alleged exposure occurred in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. Generally, plaintiffs may only bring actions in states where the defendant company is based, incorporated, or in locations where they primarily do business.

FELA on its own does not allow for states to claim jurisdiction simply because railways pass through their land. The court clarified further that BNSF can only face suit “at home” meaning their state where incorporated or primary state of business. BNSF could be sued for matters that occur in Montana; however, incidents that have no connection to the state cannot be pursued there. Justice Sotomayor was the lone justice who dissented in the ruling stating that it allows multi-state organizations the potential to arrange for matters of civil liability to be brought in the jurisdictions with laws that are best suited to protect them. This suggests that companies could choose locations that allow them to operate with the least potential exposure to civil liability. New Supreme Court Justice Neal Gorsuch fully participated in the proceedings, which was his first full ruling. Based on the 8-1 consensus, it is unlikely that the ruling will be challenged anytime soon.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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