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SCOTUS review of worker’s theory in railway liability case

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The Supreme Court of the United States has heard oral argument on Monday, in a case about a railroad worker seriously injured after slipping on an oiled walkway on a locomotive while it was not moving, and sued Union Pacific under a confusing federal law.

In the case of stylized as LeDure v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, an eight-member bench of the nation’s supreme court that will decide the scope of the Locomotive Inspection Act and what “use” or “permitted use” means for locomotives – the convenient towing the rest of the carriages – according to federal law. Justice Amy Coney Barrett reused herself from the case as she tried the matter before the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Justice Clarence Thomas has reappeared for the first time after a recent health scare.

The act, passed in 1908 as the first federal statute on steam locomotives, generally required railroads to perform inspections and implement safety measures. If an employee is injured and the railway fails to comply with safety and inspection regulations, the employee can sue the railway for damages. However, under this regulation, a worker can sue only when the locomotives are deemed “used” or “allowed to be used” on the railway.

The theory of liability advanced by workers, former engineers Bradley LeDurehinges on the idea that a locomotive is being “used” or “allowed to use”, according to his petition for a certification letter “until they are removed from intended use by by storing them in a location dedicated to service personnel maintenance and repair.”

During the argument, to answer questions, the attorney David Frederick said such a use or potential use could also be represented, such as when such a locomotive “remains serving the railway’s specialized purposes until it is dispatched” somewhere. no longer active.

In the particular case of LeDure, the locomotive was parked in a railroad yard in Salem, Illinois. The locomotive must not be parked on the main track and must not be linked to the rest of the train. Rather, it was located on a side street near a repair shop. But, the worker argued, the locomotive was only scheduled for a brief pause before it was due to be sent back about three hours later. On the other hand, Union Pacific claimed the ship had actually been docked for five hours.

Judge John Roberts appeared largely skeptical of workers’ claims and repeatedly raised the most pro-employer questions throughout Monday’s proceedings, at one point saying he would did not say that his car parked in his driveway was being used.

Roberts then went on to ask about an “on side rail” locomotive slated for 10 days of use and asked if the locomotive was eligible for use. Frederick replied that would qualify because “it will be deployed by the railroad on schedule.”

Thomas posited, and then repeatedly returned to, the theory of the “motor coach” towing his car, by which he meant his engine going home with his car. towed around the country.

In practice, Frederick says, the car will be used in such cases because “nobody else can use your car,” says Thomas, who found a “weird” interpretation by because “the purpose of the vehicle is not to be airlifted home. “

Then Assistant to the Attorney General of the United States Colleen Sinzdak, though largely agree with workers representing the Biden administration, admitting that she doesn’t believe a vehicle is being towed in use. In his rebuttal, Frederick returns to the example of the engine at home and argues that it is really a simple call if you understand that the car, although towed, is being used for total vacation body.

Justice Samuel Alito Most seem to accept LeDure’s general argument but asked why there should be a difference between two different forms of stopped locomotives: (1) “in use” locomotives about to be restarted again; and (2) a locomotive that is clearly unused and in a repair shop – if both are dangerous.

Justice Sonia Sotomayoralthough generally sympathetic to workers, Frederick claimed to have tried to avoid that distinction and pressed his attorney to answer Alito’s questions directly.

In response, LeDure’s attorney said the hazards were more likely to be known by repair workers and less likely to be known by a worker stepping on a stationary locomotive that was about to be removed.

Arguing for the carrier, Union Pacific attorney Scott Ballenger thinks LeDure is trying to rewrite the rules.

“A dead locomotive is not used,” the railroad lawyer at one point said. “Clearly, Congress did not intend that. The [law] would not support the petitioner’s and the government’s interpretation. ”

Roberts pressed the rail company’s attorneys on whether a locomotive had stopped 45 minutes for lunch and whether that meant it was unused. After some back and forth, Ballenger conceding 45 minutes meant the locomotive was “temporarily unavailable.”

Justice Stephen Breyer then jumped in to bring out a book from his “childhood” called “The Small Motive May.” He asked Ballenger if the protagonist’s famous “I think I can” thought-process gaps in trying, but failing, to climb the hill in children’s fiction would be good. not put the locomotive into use – while thinking about it such pauses are “like a lunch break”.

Lawyers for the railway company vehemently objected, saying the small engine was “applying torque to the wheels” during the period when the man-made train was trying to climb hills.

Frederick later captured the episode, saying that Union Pacific was actually trying to rewrite the regulation by creating a “torque to the wheels” test that simply didn’t. exists in any prior understanding of the “use” question in the LIA. The workers’ attorney also argued that Ballenger later contradicted that novelty test by admitting, in answer to another question, that “imminent motion” would suffice to constitute employment. use.

Judge Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh the two also cast more doubt on the rail company’s claims during oral arguments – combining their arguments on safety issues.

Kavanaugh suggests Ballenger is promoting a reading of contrary precedent while noting that “most of the accidents that happen to locomotives are when the locomotive is stationary.”

“The statute is a precaution by its very nature,” Kagan said.

In response, Ballenger said the point of the precautions was not to violate the statute. The binding of legal obligations prompted active opposition from Kagan, who said “you can’t have a safe locomotive unless you’ve done a lot of things before it starts moving.”

The railroad lawyer responded with an argument that essentially blamed LeDure for his injury, agreeing with Kagan’s point while emphasizing the workers’ job was to prepare locomotives and check defects.

Frederick captured that line of thought in his concluding process, too.

“Complete change of regulation,” he said in direct response to that argument. “Because it’s not the carrier who determines whether the locomotive is in use – it’s the worker. That does not make sense. It is the workers who are injured”.

Frederick continued: “There is a tightrope that would completely break the rules,” continued Frederick, noting that the walkway outside where LeDure slid would never be used on a moving locomotive.

Elura Nanos contributed to this report.

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James Brien

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