SCOTUS to hear Montana case over FELA jurisdiction

By Charmaine Little | Mar 27, 2017

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the question of whether plaintiffs can bring a lawsuit under a federal law in a state in which there is no personal jurisdiction.

Robert Nelson took legal action against the transportation company in Montana’s 13th Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, after he said he was injured while working there. He did not confirm whether he was actually hurt in Montana.

Kelli Tyrell is the Special Administrator of the Estate of Brent Tyrell. She also filed a lawsuit against BNSF after Brent Tyrell passed away following an exposure to toxic chemicals when he worked for the company. In a similar situation to Nelson, it is not clear of whether he was exposed to the toxins in Montana.

Both parties said the employer violated the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) in their lawsuits. But BNSF wanted the case dismissed as neither Tyrell or Nelson had personal jurisdiction in Montana. It used the Daimler AG v. Bauman case as an example.

The company is appealing a Montana Supreme Court decision against it.

Julie Murray, an attorney for Public Citizen Litigation Group who is representing both Nelson and Tyrell, explained why the suit was brought in Montana, despite the plaintiffs having possibly no connection to the state.

“In terms of where workers bring suit, it’s important to understand that when FELA was adopted, injured railroad workers were at a distinct disadvantage when they sought compensation for injuries caused by their employers’ negligence because they had to go to a railroad’s home state courts,” Murray told Legal Newsline.

She went on to explain why FELA should protect Nelson and Tyrell.

“FELA was intended to be a pro-worker statute that helped level the field for these workers, including by permitting workers to bring a suit wherever a railroad does business. The system has been in place for more than a century, and it works,” she said.

She added that Montana was an advantage for the plaintiffs because it is a state that is “adjoining their home states where BNSF has been doing business since 1970.” She said requiring BNSF to “defend itself” in Montana is not an unjust gesture. Murray also pointed out that BNSF has more than 2,000 miles of railroad track and operates more than 40 facilities in Montana.

Murray said if BNSF’s perspective was acted upon, it wouldn’t be fair to plaintiffs who have to travel for a lawsuit.

“Under BNSF’s view of the law, one of our clients, who lives in North Dakota, would have had to go to Washington State, Texas, or Delaware to seek compensation under FELA for his injuries. That position, if adopted, would eviscerate workers’ rights under FELA by burdening workers with substantial costs, including travel costs, they cannot bear," she said.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce has a completely different perspective. It said in an amicus brief presented to the court that the case against BNSF should have been “swiftly dismissed, with the dismissal just as swiftly affirmed on appeal,” considering the plaintiffs have “no relation to Montana.” It indicated that Daimler AG v. Bauman should have been a clear indication.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce did not return requests for a comment. Oral arguments are April 25.

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