Engvall v. Soo Line Railroad Co.

Decision Date02 August 2001
Docket NumberNo. C6-99-64.,C6-99-64.
Citation632 N.W.2d 560
PartiesJames J. ENGVALL, Plaintiff, v. SOO LINE RAILROAD COMPANY, d/b/a Canadian Pacific Railway Company, Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff, Petitioner, Appellant, General Motors Corporation, a foreign corporation, Third-Party Defendant, Respondent.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Eric J. Magnuson, Jeffrey R. Schmidt, and Peter D. Gray, Rider, Bennett, Egan & Arundel, L.L.P., Minneapolis, for appellant.

Mickey W. Greene, Hanson, Marek, Bolkcom & Greene, Ltd., Minneapolis, and David M. Heilbron, McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, L.L.P., San Francisco, CA, and Thomas J. Sweeney, Eckert, Seamens, Cherin & Mellott, LLC, Pittsburgh, PA, for respondent General Motors Corporation.

Glenn Olander-Quamme, Spence, Ricke, Sweeney & Gernes, P.A., St. Paul, and Louis P. Warchot, Washington, D.C., for amicus curiae Association of American Railroads.

David B. Potter, Matthew J. Norton, Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly, L.L.P., Minneapolis, and Hugh F. Young, Jr., Reston, VA, for amicus curiae Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.


PAGE, Justice.

We are asked to decide whether a railroad can maintain a cause of action for contribution and/or indemnity against a railroad locomotive manufacturer when the railroad is sued by an employee under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60 (1994). The district court granted summary judgment to the manufacturer, holding that federal law preempted the contribution and indemnity actions and that the manufacturer was not a proper FELA defendant. The court of appeals affirmed. We reverse.

This case arises from an alleged injury suffered by James Engvall, a locomotive engineer for appellant Soo Line Railroad Company (Soo Line), in the course of his employment on November 6, 1996, while operating an SD60 series locomotive manufactured by the Electro-Motive Division of respondent General Motors Corporation (GM). Engvall sued Soo Line under the FELA and the Locomotive Inspection Act ((LIA), formerly known as the Boiler Inspection Act (BIA)),1 49 U.S.C. §§ 20701-20703 (1994), specifically alleging that while he was applying the SD60's handbrake the handbrake's handwheel mechanism slipped, causing him to injure his back. Soo Line, in turn, filed a third-party complaint against GM, alleging, among other things, that Engvall's injury was the result of a design flaw in the SD60's handbrake doubler assembly.2 In the third-party complaint, Soo Line asserted that GM was liable for Engvall's injuries under various state common law claims and that Soo Line was entitled under Minnesota law to contribution and/or indemnity from GM if Engvall recovered from Soo Line. GM raised the affirmative defense that Soo Line's claims are preempted by federal law and moved for summary judgment. Soo Line filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment, asserting that it was entitled to contribution and/or indemnity from GM for any liability it owed on Engvall's FELA claims. During the summary judgment proceedings, Soo Line moved the court for leave to amend its third-party complaint to include claims for contribution and/or indemnity based on the SD60's handbrake doubler assembly's alleged noncompliance with the LIA and the Safety Appliance Act, 49 U.S.C. §§ 20301-20306 (1994) (SAA), which, like the LIA, is a railroad safety statute. Following those proceedings, Soo Line settled with Engvall, leaving only its contribution and indemnity claims against GM.

The district court found that the LIA preempted Soo Line's state common law claims and granted GM's summary judgment motion. The court also found that "Soo Line has no claims against General Motors under either the LBIA [sic] or the SAA because General Motors is not a proper FELA defendant and there exists no private right of action under either statute." Finally, based on these findings, the district court further found that Soo Line's motions for partial summary judgment and amendment of its third-party complaint were moot. On appeal,3 the court of appeals affirmed the district court, holding "that the LIA preempts state common-law claims for contribution or indemnity based on design and construction asserted by a railroad carrier against a locomotive manufacturer." Engvall v. Soo Line R.R., 617 N.W.2d 444, 448 (Minn.App.2000) (Engvall II).

This court reviews an order granting summary judgment to determine whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the lower court erred in applying the law. Amaral v. Saint Cloud Hosp., 598 N.W.2d 379, 383 (Minn.1999). In doing so, the court "views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted." Ciardelli v. Rindal, 582 N.W.2d 910, 912 (Minn.1998).

We address as a threshold matter whether Soo Line can maintain a state law cause of action based on a violation of the LIA when the alleged equipment problem does not violate Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations.4 Holding that Soo Line survives summary judgment on that basis, we turn to whether the fact that Engvall could not have brought a direct action against GM under the FELA precludes the existence of common liability, a prerequisite to a claim for contribution. To answer the question whether GM and Soo Line have common liability, we must determine whether a state law claim against GM based on the LIA is preempted by federal law. Finally, we address whether Soo Line may pursue its claim for indemnity even though the FELA imposes a nondelegable duty on employers.


The background for this lawsuit is the FELA, a general negligence statute, Waymire v. Norfolk and W. Ry., 218 F.3d 773, 775 (7th Cir.2000), that allows railroad employees to recover from their employers for employment-related injuries caused by employer negligence, Engvall I, 605 N.W.2d at 739 n. 1; 45 U.S.C. § 51. Under the FELA, the employer's duty is nondelegable. Shenker v. Balt. & Ohio R.R., 374 U.S. 1, 7, 83 S.Ct. 1667, 10 L.Ed.2d 709 (1963). At the same time, the LIA "`imposes upon the [railroad] carrier an absolute and continuing duty to maintain the locomotive, and all parts and appurtenances thereof, in proper condition, and safe to operate ... without unnecessary peril to life or limb.'"Lilly v. Grand Trunk W. R.R., 317 U.S. 481, 485, 63 S.Ct. 347, 87 L.Ed. 411 (1943) (quoting S. Ry. v. Lunsford, 297 U.S. 398, 401, 56 S.Ct. 504, 80 L.Ed. 740 (1936)); see Engvall I, 605 N.W.2d at 739 n. 1 (noting that the LIA "imposes an absolute requirement that employers provide safe equipment"); see also 49 U.S.C. § 20701(1) (1994).5 The LIA differs from the FELA in that the LIA does not confer any right of action on injured employees. Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163, 188, 69 S.Ct. 1018, 93 L.Ed. 1282 (1949); Engvall I, 605 N.W.2d at 739 n. 1. The United States Supreme Court has construed the LIA to be an amendment to the FELA, so that "proof of [an LIA violation] is effective to show negligence as a matter of law" under the FELA. Urie, 337 U.S. at 189,69 S.Ct. 1018; Engvall I, 605 N.W.2d at 739 n. 1. The "prime purpose" of both the FELA and the LIA is "the protection of railroad employees * * * from injury due to industrial accident," Urie, 337 U.S. at 191,69 S.Ct. 1018 (citation omitted), and the LIA is "to be read and applied with the [FELA]," Balt. & Ohio Ry. v. Groeger, 266 U.S. 521, 528, 45 S.Ct. 169, 69 L.Ed. 419 (1925). As noted, the FRA may promulgate regulations implementing the requirements of the LIA. 49 U.S.C. § 20103; 49 C.F.R. § 1.49(c)(5), (g).

The parties agree on two significant matters. First, that the SD60 handbrake is a "part" or "appurtenance" of a locomotive within the meaning of the LIA. And second, even though the LIA refers only to "railroad carrier[s]," the parties agree that manufacturers of railroad equipment are also subject to the requirements of the LIA. See 49 U.S.C. § 21302 (1994); 49 C.F.R. 229.7(b) (2000).

Does Soo Line have a state law cause of action based on a violation of the LIA when the claimed equipment problem does not violate FRA regulations? GM argues that an action based on the LIA must allege a violation of an FRA regulation, because a locomotive part or appurtenance complies with the LIA as a matter of law unless the part or appurtenance violates a specific FRA regulation. On this basis GM argues, relying principally on the Supreme Court's decision in Groeger, that "courts and juries have no authority to judge locomotive designs deficient that do not violate a specific FRA regulation, for regulation remains FRA's exclusive province." GM's reliance on Groeger is unwarranted.

In Groeger, a locomotive engineer was killed when the steam boiler of the locomotive he was operating exploded. The engineer's wife brought an action against her husband's employer under the FELA and the LIA. Groeger, 266 U.S. at 522-23,45 S.Ct. 169. The trial court entered judgment for the wife following a jury verdict in her favor, and the circuit court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that part of the jury instructions was improper.

The trial court's error involved the part of the jury instructions that allowed the jury to determine whether "the standard of duty imposed by the law required a fusible safety plug to be installed." Id. at 528, 531, 45 S.Ct. 169. The problem with such an instruction, the Court explained, is that the LIA only requires equipment to meet a certain level of safety, and does not require that this level of safety be achieved in any particular manner. Id. at 529, 45 S.Ct. 169 ("carriers were left free to determine how their boilers should be kept in proper condition for use without unnecessary danger"); id. at 530, 45 S.Ct. 169 ("[i]nventions are occurring frequently, and there are many devices to accomplish the same purpose"). Thus, the Court held "that defendant was not liable for failure to furnish the best mechanical...

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