U.S. Supreme Court Update: FELA Case Involving Locomotive Safety Is Decided (Sort Of)

by Nelson Wolff, Senior Partner

On April 28, 2022, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of LeDure vs. Union Pacific Railroad Co. where Schlichter Bogard & Denton represented a locomotive engineer who sustained career-ending injuries when he slipped on an engine’s oily passageway. The decision was a 4-4 tie vote that effectively fails to establish guidance in other cases.

The incident occurred in Salem, Illinois, during a nighttime crew change on a train that was temporarily stopped during its journey from Chicago to Dexter, Missouri. LeDure, a veteran train service employee, was walking from the head end of the train to power off the second and third locomotives, pursuant to UP’s fuel conservation policy. After crossing over to the third unit, he slipped and fell, striking his head, shoulders, and lower back on the steel walkway. Following a post-injury inspection, a UP mechanical crew identified oil on the locomotive passageways as the cause of the slip.

Ledure filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, asserting negligence and the violation of an FRA regulation requiring locomotive passageways to be free of oil and other slipping hazards. The court refused to allow a jury trial. Instead, it granted summary judgment to UP, finding that it could not have known that oil was on the walkway or when/how it got there. The court also held that the safety regulation did not apply because the locomotive was not “in use” at the time of the incident—a requirement for the regulation to apply. It reasoned that preparing a locomotive for operation, to be hauled “dead,” was not “in use” because it was not imminently ready for departure since a few cars needed to be switched out of the train. The court of appeals in Chicago affirmed that decision. Schlichter Bogard & Denton sought discretionary review in the Supreme Court, which only accepts 1% of all requests for review. After receiving support from the FRA arguing that the locomotive was in use, the Supreme Court accepted review—a major victory itself! Written arguments were submitted on behalf of LeDure by Schlichter Bogard & Denton, the FRA, and a group of unions (BLET and SMART-UTU) as well as the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys (ARLA). The case was opposed by UP, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

During the March 28 oral argument in Washington, D.C., justices questioned the limits of the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA). This law was modeled after the Safety Appliance Act and was previously known as the Boiler Inspection Act. FRA’s regulations were enacted pursuant to LIA. Previous court decisions interpreting the phrase “in use” characterized it broadly to mean any use of on rail equipment until it reaches a place of repair. Yet, the Court questioned the outer limits of “use” to determine whether a locomotive in storage in a railyard or on a sidetrack would be “in use,” or whether the locomotive had to be running (as opposed to powered off), and whether it must be part of a fully assembled train ready for imminent departure. Several justices seemed inclined to narrowly interpret the law, despite prior decisions requiring a broad reading to promote safety and provide a compensation remedy for injured rail workers. Many conservative justices, appointed by Republican presidents, appeared more sympathetic to railroad interests and inclined to limit worker protections.

On April 28, the Court issued a decision announcing a 4-4 tie vote. What that means is that the decision of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals stands, but the case does not bind other courts. In essence, the Supreme Court was evenly divided on how to decide the issue. Usually, there are nine justices which decide cases so that tie votes cannot happen. However, here, one of the justices did not take part in the decision because she (Amy Coney Barret) was part of the panel that issued the ruling in the 7th Circuit.

In accepting this case, the Supreme Court acknowledged that it presented an important issue on which the lower courts were divided. Given the lack of binding value from today’s decision, confusion and uncertainty remain on track. The decision also derails an opportunity to improve safety for thousands of concerned railroad workers throughout North America. In this case, a long-time employee suffered career ending injuries due to equipment Union Pacific acknowledged was unsafe, yet he was deprived of his right to a jury trial to assess fair compensation. His case highlights the perverse incentives for railroads to sacrifice safety via cost cutting moves intended to boost profits, such as reducing mechanical support personnel.

This case also serves as a reminder that who we elect as President and to Congress directly affects who is appointed to the Supreme Court and ultimately decides issues that can have a profound effect on railroad worker’s legal rights. Regardless, now more than ever, it is important to seek prompt legal advice from Schlichter Bogard & Denton. This is the fifth time in recent years that Schlichter Bogard & Denton has presented a case to the Supreme Court as we continue our fight on behalf of workers.