Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Sorrell, No. 05–746.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtChief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation127 S.Ct. 799,75 BNA USLW 4045,549 U.S. 158,166 L.Ed.2d 638
Docket NumberNo. 05–746.
Decision Date10 January 2007
PartiesNORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY, Petitioner. v. Timothy SORRELL.

549 U.S. 158
127 S.Ct.
799
166 L.Ed.2d 638
75 BNA USLW 4045

NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY, Petitioner.
v.
Timothy SORRELL.

No. 05–746.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Oct. 10, 2006.
Decided Jan. 10, 2007.




[127 S.Ct. 800]Syllabus*

Respondent Sorrell was injured while working for the petitioner railroad (Norfolk), and sought damages for his injuries in Missouri state court under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), which makes a railroad liable for an employee's injuries “resulting in whole or in part from [the railroad's] negligence,” Section 1. FELA reduces any damages awarded to an employee “in proportion to the amount [of negligence] attributable to” the employee, Section 3. Missouri's jury instructions apply different causation standards to railroad negligence and employee contributory negligence in FELA actions. An employee will be found contributorily negligent if his negligence “directly contributed to cause” the injury, while railroad negligence is measured by whether the railroad's negligence “contributed in whole or in part” to the injury. After the trial court overruled Norfolk's objection that the instruction on contributory negligence contained[127 S.Ct. 801]a different standard than the railroad negligence instruction, the jury awarded Sorrell $1.5 million. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Norfolk's contention that the same causation standard should apply to both parties' negligence.

Held:

1. Norfolk's attempt to expand the question presented to encompass what the FELA causation standard should be, not simply whether the standard should be the same for railroad negligence and employee contributory negligence, is rejected. This Court is typically reluctant to permit parties to smuggle additional questions into a case after the grant of certiorari. Although the Court could consider the question of what standard applies as anterior to the question whether the standards may differ, the substantive content of the causation standard is a significant enough issue that the Court prefers not to address it when it has not been fully presented. Pp. 803 – 805.

2. The same causation standard applies to railroad negligence under FELA Section 1 as to employee contributory negligence under Section 3. Absent express language to the contrary, the elements of a FELA claim are determined by reference to the common law, Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163, 182, 69 S.Ct. 1018, 93 L.Ed. 1282, and unless common-law principles are expressly rejected in FELA's text, they are entitled to great weight, Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 544, 114 S.Ct. 2396, 129 L.Ed.2d 427. The prevailing common-law view at the time FELA was enacted was that

[549 U.S. 159]

the causation standards for negligence and contributory negligence were the same, and FELA did not expressly depart from this approach. This is strong evidence against Missouri's practice of applying different standards, which is apparently unique among the States. Departing from the common-law practice would in any event have been a peculiar approach for Congress to take in FELA: As a practical matter, it is difficult to reduce damages “in proportion” to the employee's negligence if the relevance of each party's negligence is measured by a different causation standard. The Court thinks it far simpler for a jury to conduct the apportionment FELA mandates if the jury compares like with like. Contrary to Sorrell's argument, the use of the language “in whole or in part” with respect to railroad negligence in FELA Section 1, but not with respect to employee contributory negligence in Section 3, does not justify a departure from the common-law practice of applying a single causation standard. It would have made little sense to include the “in whole or in part” language in Section 3; if the employee's contributory negligence contributed “in whole” to his injury, there would be no recovery against the railroad in the first place. The language made sense in Section 1, however, to clarify that there could be recovery against the railroad even if it were only partially responsible for the injury. In any event, there is no reason to read the statute as a whole to encompass different causation standards, since Section 3 simply does not address causation. Finally, FELA's remedial purpose cannot compensate for the lack of statutory text: FELA does not abrogate the common-law approach. A review of FELA model instructions indicates that there are a variety of ways to instruct a jury to apply the same causation standard to railroad negligence and employee contributory negligence. Missouri has the same flexibility as other jurisdictions in deciding how to do so, so long as it now joins them in applying a single standard. On remand, the Missouri Court of Appeals should address Sorrell's argument that any [127 S.Ct. 802]error in the jury instructions was harmless, and should determine whether a new trial is required. Pp. 804 – 809.

170 S.W.3d 35, vacated and remanded.

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ., joined. SOUTER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which SCALIA and ALITO, JJ., joined, post, p. 809. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 812.


Carter G. Phillips, Washington, D.C., for Petitioner.

L. Perry, for Respondent.


Laura D. Hunt, Senior General Attorney, Norfolk, VA, James W. Erwin, David Dick Thompson Coburn LLP, St. Louis, MO, Carter G. Phillips, Stephen B. Kinnaird, Eric A. Shumsky, Julie A. Gurley, Ruthanne M. Deutsch, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, D.C., for Petitioner.

Kathleen M. Sullivan, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart, Oliver & Hedges, LLP, Redwood Shores, CA, Jerome J. Schlichter, Roger C. Denton, Mary L. Perry, Schlichter, Bogard & Denton, St. Louis, MO, for Respondent.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

[549 U.S. 160]

Timothy Sorrell, respondent in this Court, sustained neck and back injuries while working as a trackman for petitioner Norfolk Southern Railway Company. He filed suit in Missouri state court under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51–60, which makes railroads liable to their employees for injuries “resulting in whole or in part from the negligence” of the railroad, § 51. Contributory negligence is not a bar to recovery under FELA, but damages are reduced “in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to” the employee, § 53. Sorrell was awarded $1.5 million in damages by a jury; Norfolk objects that the jury instructions reflected a more lenient causation standard for railroad negligence than for employee contributory negligence. We conclude that the causation standard under FELA should be the same for both categories of negligence, and accordingly vacate the decision below and remand for further proceedings.

I

On November 1, 1999, while working for Norfolk in Indiana, Sorrell was driving a dump truck loaded with asphalt to be used to repair railroad crossings. While he was driving between crossings on a gravel road alongside the tracks, another Norfolk truck approached, driven by fellow employee Keith Woodin. The two men provided very different accounts of what happened next, but somehow Sorrell's truck

[549 U.S. 161]

veered off the road and tipped on its side, injuring him. According to Sorrell's testimony, Woodin forced Sorrell's truck off the road; according to Woodin, Sorrell drove his truck into a ditch.

On June 18, 2002, Sorrell filed suit against Norfolk in Missouri state court under FELA, alleging that Norfolk failed to provide him with a reasonably safe place to work and that its negligence caused his injuries. Norfolk responded that Sorrell's own negligence caused the accident.

Missouri purports to apply different standards of causation to railroad and employee contributory negligence in its approved jury instructions for FELA liability. The instructions direct a jury to find [127 S.Ct. 803]an employee contributorily negligent if the employee was negligent and his negligence “directly contributed to cause” the injury, Mo. Approved Jury Instr., Civ., No. 32.07(B), p. 519 (6th ed.2002), while allowing a finding of railroad negligence if the railroad was negligent and its negligence contributed “in whole or in part” to the injury, id., No. 24.01.1

When Sorrell proposed the Missouri approved instruction for employee contributory negligence, Norfolk objected on the ground that it provided a “different” and “much more exacting” standard for causation than that applicable with respect to the railroad's negligence under the Missouri instructions. App. to Pet. for Cert. 28a–29a. The trial court overruled the objection. App. 9–10. After the jury returned

[549 U.S. 162]

a verdict in favor of Sorrell, Norfolk moved for a new trial, repeating its contention that the different standards were improper because FELA's comparative fault system requires that the same causation standard apply to both categories of negligence. Id., at 20. The trial court denied the motion. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Norfolk's contention that “the causation standard should be the same as to the plaintiff and the defendant.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 7a, judgt. order reported at 170 S.W.3d 35 (2005)(per curiam). The court explained that Missouri procedural rules require that where an approved instruction exists, it must be given to the exclusion of other instructions. Ibid.; see Mo. Rule Civ. Proc. 70.02(b) (2006).

After the Missouri Supreme Court denied discretionary review, App. to Pet. for Cert. 31a, Norfolk sought certiorari in this Court, asking whether the Missouri courts erred in determining that “the causation standard for employee contributory negligence under [FELA] differs from the causation standard for railroad negligence.” Pet. for Cert. i. Norfolk stated that Missouri was the only jurisdiction to apply...

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205 practice notes
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    ...would be liable if it was negligent even if the injured worker had been much more negligent. Norfolk Southern Ry. v. Sorrell, supra [549 U.S. 158], 127 S.Ct. [799], at 810-11 [166 L.Ed.2d 638 Coffey v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter R. Corp., 479 F.3d 472, 476 (7th Cir.2007). Likewise......
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    • July 14, 2017
    ...the States wide discretion on how to channel the sentencing jury's balancing of mitigating and aggravating factors. See Kansas v. Marsh, 549 U.S. 158, 174-75 (2007) (holding, in connection with the selection phase of a capital sentencing proceeding, the Constitution mandates only that (1) t......
  • Blackmon v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV
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    ...jurisdiction of the state and federal courts over FELA claims. Jordan, 2009 WL 112561, at *6 (citing Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Sorrell, 549 U.S. 158, 165-66 (2007)); Jennings v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 993 S.W.2d 66, 70 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998). Although, substantively, FELA actions are governed by f......
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207 cases
  • Grogg v. Csx Transp., Inc., Cause No. 1:07-CV-222.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • September 14, 2009
    ...would be liable if it was negligent even if the injured worker had been much more negligent. Norfolk Southern Ry. v. Sorrell, supra [549 U.S. 158], 127 S.Ct. [799], at 810-11 [166 L.Ed.2d 638 Coffey v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter R. Corp., 479 F.3d 472, 476 (7th Cir.2007). Likewise......
  • Freeman v. Dunn, CASE NO. 2:06-CV-122-WKW [WO]
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Middle District of Alabama
    • July 2, 2018
    ...the States wide discretion on how to channel the sentencing jury's balancing of mitigating and aggravating factors. See Kansas v. Marsh, 549 U. S. 158, 174-75 (2007) (holding, in connection with the selection phase of a capital sentencing proceeding, the Constitution mandates only that (1) ......
  • Dallas v. Dunn, CASE NO. 2:02-CV-777-WKW
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Middle District of Alabama
    • July 14, 2017
    ...the States wide discretion on how to channel the sentencing jury's balancing of mitigating and aggravating factors. See Kansas v. Marsh, 549 U.S. 158, 174-75 (2007) (holding, in connection with the selection phase of a capital sentencing proceeding, the Constitution mandates only that (1) t......
  • Blackmon v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • May 16, 2014
    ...jurisdiction of the state and federal courts over FELA claims. Jordan, 2009 WL 112561, at *6 (citing Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Sorrell, 549 U.S. 158, 165-66 (2007)); Jennings v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 993 S.W.2d 66, 70 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998). Although, substantively, FELA actions are governed by f......
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