Supreme Court Helps Injured Seamen — CSX v. McBride

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court preserved a legal rule which has for 50 years helped railway workers and Jones Act seamen recover fair compensation for their injuries. Despite a vigorous dissent by the Chief Justice, the majority in CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride held that if employer negligence plays any part in causing injury to a railway worker (or seaman), no matter how slight, the employer is liable for damages. This is a more liberal standard than the common law rule of “proximate causation,” and prevents defendants from escaping liability by arguing that employer negligence was not a direct or immediate cause of the injury.

The Jones Act standard of causation is a citadel of seamans’ rights. The lawyers for CSX mounted their assault on the rule by challenging the interpretation given a 1957 Supreme Court decision by every federal circuit court which has considered the issue of causation under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (“FELA”) and the Jones Act (which incorporates FELA). Justice Ginsberg, writing for the majority, adopted the reasoning of all federal appellate courts and adhered to the rule of causation which has served the interests of justice for half a century.

Ironically, the so-called conservative justices urged that the well-established rule be cast aside. They would have replaced the rule created by Congress as interpreted by the Supreme Court in 1957, with an English common law rule which would have assisted shipowners in avoiding liability for their negligence.

Especially in cases involving mariners, the relaxed standard of causation is justified. The ocean is a dangerous place and crewmembers aboard vessels are at the mercy, not only of the elements, but of those in whose employ they are subjected to the perils of the sea. Above all other employers, shipowners must be held accountable for their carelessness, because the risks are so great and the stakes are so high. With this in mind, English and American courts sitting in admiralty have for centuries treated seamen as their “wards,” whose rights must be jealously guarded.

The decision of the Supreme Court in CSX v. McBride, upholds the ancient judicial tradition of solicitude toward those who go down to the sea in ships. We at Anderson, Connell & Carey applaud the ruling and look forward to continuing the task of securing fair compensation for injured seamen.