In its recent opinion in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, et al., No. 16-405 (U.S. May 30, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the jurisdictions in which a plaintiff may bring a claim under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), and significantly limited FELA plaintiffs’ ability to “forum shop.” The FELA provides for concurrent state and federal jurisdiction, and permits plaintiffs to bring FELA suits in both state and federal courts. Until the Tyrrell decision, it was commonplace for FELA plaintiffs to file suit in state courts outside their home state of residence, the state where the alleged injuries occurred, or the defendant company’s primary place of business. This flexible interpretation of the FELA’s jurisdictional standards permitted plaintiffs to, in effect, shop for the most favorable forum, and resulted in cases being filed in states reputed to be plaintiff-friendly (such as Montana), regardless of whether the cases had any connection to the state in which they were filed. Hall & Evans attorneys filed the initial motions to dismiss and were involved in the appellate process that resulted in this major victory for the railroad industry.
The Court abolished the practice of forum-shopping in FELA cases by ruling that 45 U.S.C. § 56 merely addresses venue and does not confer personal jurisdiction. The Court further held that Montana’s exercise of general personal jurisdiction over a Class I railroad which was not “at home” in Montana, and in a case which did not involve injuries connected to the railroad’s operations in Montana, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Tyrrell makes clear that the Supreme Court does not favor forum-shopping by FELA plaintiffs and going forward, FELA cases will need to be filed in the states where either: (1) the underlying accident occurred; (2) the railroad defendant has its primary place of business; or (3) the railroad defendant’s state of incorporation.