The United States Supreme Court recently held that a single standard of causation now applies when assessing the negligence of an employer and employee under FELA. Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. Timothy Sorrell, 127 S.Ct. 799, 166 L.Ed. 2d 638(1/10/07) (U.S. Reporter citation unavailable). Because the Jones Act is modeled closely upon FELA’s statutory language, federal courts tend to apply the same analysis of negligence issues arising under both statutes. It appears that the Sorrell decision supports the conclusion of earlier maritime cases indicating that a Jones Act employer is held to the same standard of causation in a negligence analysis as his seaman-employee
The Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.A. § 688, et seq, affords seaman employees rights parallel to those of railroad employees under the Federal Employers Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C.A. § 51, et seq. Thus, by its incorporation of the FELA statutory language, the Jones Act allows a seaman to recover if his employer’s negligence is the cause, in whole or in part, of his injury. Courts originally associated the statutory phrase “in whole or in part” with the term “slightest” to describe the reduced standard of causation between the employer’s negligence and the employee’s injury in cases arising under § 51 of FELA. However, modern jurisprudence has clarified that the word “slightest” modifies only “causation” and not “negligence.” Likewise, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the duty of care owed by a Jones Act employer is no more onerous than that of owed by its employees, and retains its usual and familiar definition under normal rules of statutory construction, i.e., “ordinary prudence.” Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331 (5th Cir. 1997).
The Gautreaux decision sets forth the similarities of causation standards for an employer’s negligence under both FELA and the Jones Act. However, the certainty of a uniform causation standard has been repeatedly questioned in the years following the Gautreaux decision. In 2007, the United States Supreme Court ended the uncertainty regarding differing causation standards for employee and employer negligence under FELA. Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. Timothy Sorrell, 127 S.Ct. 799, 166 L.Ed. 2d 638(1/10/07) (U.S. Reporter citation unavailable). Timothy Sorrell, an employee of Norfolk Southern Railway Company sued his employer for injuries incurred while driving a dump truck between railroad crossings. Sorrell claimed that another Norfolk truck forced him off the road and caused him to tip over into a ditch.
Sorrell filed suit under FELA alleging that his employer failed to provide him with a reasonably safe place to work and that its negligence caused his injuries. Norfolk argued that Sorrell’s own negligence caused the incident. The trial Court instructed the jury to find the employee negligent only if the employee’s negligence directly contributed to cause his injury. In contrast, the Court instructed the jury to find the railroad at fault if its negligence contributed in whole or in part to the employee’s injury. Norfolk objected to the disparity of the instructions, but the trial court overruled the objection. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Sorrell. Norfolk argued on appeal that the same causation standard should apply to the negligence of the employer and the employee. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, rejecting Norfolk’s contention. After the Missouri Supreme Court denied discretionary review, Norfolk sought certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, which was granted.
Faced with the issue of whether, under FELA, causation standards for the negligence of an employee differed from the causation standard for the employer’s negligence, the Supreme Court held that a single standard of causation applies to both parties. In its holding the Supreme Court agreed with Norfolk that FELA not only mandates a single standard of causation, but stated that it is far simpler for a jury to conduct a negligence analysis using a single standard. Although the Supreme Court determined that the applicable duty standard was that of "ordinary prudence," in line with the 5th Circuit’s decision in Gautreaux, it declined to provide the specific causation standard for the negligence analysis, emphasizing that its task was merely to decide that the same standard of causation applied to both employer and employee.