SCOTUS: State Courts Don’t Have Jurisdiction Over Out-of-State Railroads

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Montana court’s ruling that BNSF Railway employees could file an injury lawsuit against the company in Montana, even though they had never worked there and were injured elsewhere.

The Supreme Court ruled that state courts don’t have jurisdiction over a railroad company headquartered elsewhere simply because the company runs tracks through multiple states. The court’s decision confirms earlier rulings that prevent a state court from having general authority to decide cases against a corporation unless the court is in the same state as the corporation’s principal place of business. BNSF is based in the state of Texas but has 2,000 miles of track and 2,000 employees in Montana, less than 10 percent of the company’s total revenue.

The court ruled 8-1 with the lone dissenting vote cast by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote that the decision “grants a windfall to large multistate and multinational corporations and that individual plaintiff will be forced to sue in distant jurisdictions where they have no contacts or connections,” according to a U.S. News & World Report article.

What About FELA?

Section 56 of the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provides that a railroad employ may bring suit against the worker’s employer in the state where the employer is “doing business,” and also establishes concurrent jurisdiction between state and federal courts for claims brought under the Act.

 Although the Montana Supreme Court held that Section 56 authorized state courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over railroads doing business in the state, the U.S. Supreme Court saw it differently. The high court wrote in its opinion that the term “doing business” related to FELA pertains only to the venue (where a suit may be brought), and explained that concurrent jurisdiction under FELA allows both state and federal courts to hear FELA actions, as long as jurisdiction is proper.

 If you are a railroad worker who was injured at work, including repetitive use or exposure injuries, and have questions concerning your case, contact Murray & Murray online.