May 30, 2017

Supreme Court Decides BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell

On May 30, 2017, the Supreme Court decided BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, No. 16-405, holding that § 56 of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) does not address personal jurisdiction and thus limiting the fora in which a railroad is subject to suit.

Under FELA, railroads are liable to employees for injuries they suffer on the job. In this case, plaintiffs who lived outside Montana and had suffered injuries outside Montana sued BNSF Railway Company in Montana under FELA. BNSF did business in Montana but was incorporated and had its principal place of business elsewhere. The Montana Supreme Court approved personal jurisdiction over BNSF under FELA § 56, which states that a cause of action may be brought in a district “in which the defendant shall be doing business at the time of commencing such action” and further provides that the jurisdiction of the federal courts is concurrent with that of the state courts.

The Supreme Court held that § 56 does not address personal jurisdiction but rather is a venue provision that also clarifies that state courts have subject matter jurisdiction over FELA claims. Hence, Section 56 alone did not establish a basis to hale BNSF into court in Montana.

Turning to ordinary principles of personal jurisdiction, the Court reasserted the holdings in Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. ___ (2014), and Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915 (2011), that courts may assert general jurisdiction over corporations only when they are essentially “at home” in the forum state. Rejecting the Montana Supreme Court’s suggestion that Daimler was distinguishable from this case involving a FELA claim against a railroad, the Court emphasized that “[t]he Fourteenth Amendment due process constraint described in Daimler . . . applies to all state-court assertions of general jurisdiction over nonresident defendants; the constraint does not vary with the type of claim asserted or business enterprise sued.”

Because BNSF was not incorporated in Montana and did not maintain its principal place of business there, it was not subject to general personal jurisdiction in Montana. The Court acknowledged BNSF’s presence and activities in Montana and noted that those contacts are sufficient to subject it to personal jurisdiction on related claims. But they do not support personal jurisdiction for unrelated claims like those of the plaintiffs, which had “no relationship to anything that occurred or had its principal impact in Montana.”

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch. Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

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