The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in a case involving a railroad worker who suffered serious injuries after slipping on an oily underpass on a stationary locomotive and sued Union Pacific in under an obscure federal law.
In the case stylized as LeDure v Union Pacific Railroad Company, an eight-member bench of the country’s High Court will decide the scope of the Locomotive Inspection Act and what ‘use’ or ‘permit to be used’ means for locomotives – the vehicles that pull the rest of the cars – under federal law. Justice Amy Coney Barrett recused herself from the case as she tried the case in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Justice Clarence Thomas made his first appearance after a recent health crisis.
The law, passed in 1908 as the first federal piece of legislation covering steam locomotives, generally requires railroads to perform inspections and implement safety measures. If an employee is injured and a railroad fails to comply with safety and inspection mandates, that employee can sue the railroad for damages. Under the law, however, a worker can only sue when the locomotives are deemed to be “in use” or “authorized to be used” on the railway line.
The theory of responsibility put forward by the worker, a former engineer Bradley LeDureis based on the idea that a locomotive is “used” or “allowed to be used”, according to its brief request for certiorari “until it is removed from use by storing it in a place dedicated to maintenance and repair by personal service.”
During the argument, in response to the questioning, the lawyer David Frederick said use or potential use can also be expressed as when such a locomotive “still serves the dedicated purposes of the railroad until it is sent” somewhere out of service.
In LeDure’s particular case, the locomotive was parked in a rail yard in Salem, Illinois. The locomotive was not parked on the main tracks and was not connected to the rest of the train. Rather, it was on a side street near a repair shop. But, argues the worker, the locomotive was only scheduled for a brief stopover before leaving about three hours later. Union Pacific, on the other hand, claims that the train was actually parked for five hours.
Chief Judge John Roberts seemed largely skeptical of the worker’s claims and consistently asked the employer’s most supportive questions throughout Monday’s proceedings, saying at one point he wouldn’t say his car parked in his driveway was being used .
Roberts followed up later to ask about a “side track” locomotive scheduled for use in 10 days and asked if it would be considered in use. Frederick replied that it would qualify because “it’s there to be deployed by the railroad on schedule”.
Thomas posed, then repeatedly turned around, a guess about his “coach” pulling his car, by which he meant his motorhome traveling with his car in tow across the country.
Frederick said the car would, in fact, be used in such circumstances because “nobody else can use your car”, which Thomas said he found a “strange” way of understanding things because “the purpose of the car is not to be transported by the camper.
Later Assistant United States Solicitor General Colleen Sinzdak, while largely agreeing with the worker on behalf of the Biden administration, admitted she did not believe a towed car was being used. During his rebuttal, Frederick returned to the motorhome example and argued that it was actually an easy call if you understand that the car, despite being towed, is used for holidays in general.
Justice Samuel Alito seemed broadly receptive to LeDure’s general argument but questioned why there should be a difference between two different forms of stopped locomotives: (1) the “in service” locomotive about to be dismissed; and (2) a locomotive that is obviously not in use and in, say, a repair shop – if both are, ultimately, unsafe.
Justice Sonia Sotomayoralthough generally sympathetic to the worker, suggested that Frederick had attempted to evade this distinction and urged the attorney to answer Alito’s question directly.
In response, LeDure’s attorney said the hazards are more likely to be known to repairers and less likely to be known to a worker stepping on the stopped locomotive about to be dispatched.
Advocacy for carrier, Union Pacific attorney Scott Ballenger argued that LeDure was trying to rewrite the law.
“A dead hauled locomotive is not used,” the railroad lawyer said at one point. “Obviously, Congress didn’t have that intention. the [law] will not support the interpretation of the petitioner and the government. »
Roberts pressed the railroad’s lawyer about a locomotive being stopped for 45 minutes to pick up lunch and whether that would mean it’s not in use. After some back and forth, Ballenger conceded that a 45-minute break would mean the locomotive “is temporarily out of order”.
Justice Stephane Breyer then jumped to reminisce about a book from his “childhood” titled “The Little Engine That Could”. He asked Ballenger whether or not deficiencies during the titular character’s well-known “I think I can” thought processes while trying and failing to climb hills in the work of children’s fiction would have put the locomotive in service – while thinking that these breaks are “same as a lunch break”.
The railroad’s attorney vehemently disagreed, saying the small engine was “applying torque to the wheels” during the time the anthropomorphic train was trying to climb the hills.
Frederick then latched onto that verbiage, claiming that Union Pacific was actually the one trying to rewrite the law by creating a “wheel torque” test that simply doesn’t exist in any understanding ever tried regarding the issue of “use” under the LIA. Counsel for the worker also argued that Ballenger later contradicted this new test by conceding, in response to a different question, that “imminent movement” would be enough to constitute use.
judges Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh both also seemed much more skeptical of the railroad’s claims during oral argument – grouping their arguments in terms of safety issues.
Kavanaugh suggested that Ballenger was advancing a discordant reading of the precedent while noting that “most accidents that occur with respect to locomotives occur when locomotives are stationary”.
“This law is preventive law in its very essence,” Kagan said.
In response, Ballenger said the purpose of precautions is not to violate the law. This framing of duty under law provoked an aggressive reaction from Kagan who stated “you can’t have a safe locomotive unless you’ve done a lot of things before it starts moving”.
The railroad attorney responded with an argument that essentially blamed LeDure for his injury, conceding Kagan’s point while insisting that the worker’s job was to prep the locomotive and check for faults.
Frederick also caught on to this line of thinking in his conclusion.
“Completely overturns the law,” he said in direct response to that argument. “Because it’s not the carrier who determines whether the locomotive is used, it’s the worker. That does not make any sense. The worker is the one who was injured.
“Having a narrow narrowing would completely void the rules,” Frederick continued, noting that the outer catwalk where LeDure slipped would never be used on a moving locomotive.
Elura Nanos contributed to this report.
[image via hip Somedevilla/Getty Images]
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