News & Events

Association of American Railroads: FELA awards may not be vacated unless “monstrously excessive.”

FELA plaintiffs have long pointed out that Congress placed FELA cases in the hand of juries “to the maximum extent proper.”  Tiller v. Atl. Coast Line R. Co., 318 U.S. 54, 68 & n. 30 (1943).  But how often to the railroads make the same point? A recent decision from the Montana Supreme Court brought an example to our attention.

The case is BNSF Railway Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, No. OP 18-0693, 2019 WL 1125342 (Mont. Mar. 12, 2019), and is, itself, unremarkable, as it merely declines to reverse the latest in a seemingly endless string of sanctions against the BNSF for abusive litigation tactics.  What’s interesting is that it drew an amicus brief from the Association of American Railroads.  The brief is practically a paean to the FELA jury, and includes the following:       

  1. The Parties to a FELA Case Are Entitled to Have a Jury Decide Contested Issues of Fact.

In FELA cases, the caps and limitations on recovery that characterize workers’ compensation do not apply, and injured workers may seek both economic and noneconomic damages. Frazier v. Norfolk & W. Ry. Co., 996 F.2d 922, 925 (7th Cir. 1993). Juries typically are given wide discretion to make determinations of fact, including questions about the extent of damages suffered. Damage awards under FELA will be deemed excessive only if they “shock [the] judicial conscience,” Schneider v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 987 F.2d 132, 137 (2d Cir. 1993), and only awards that are “monstrously excessive” may be vacated.  DeBiasio v. Ill. Cent. R.R., 52 F.3d 678, 687 (7th Cir. 1995) ($4.2 million award affirmed); Frazier, 996 F.2d at 925 ($2.3 million award affirmed).

Brief of Association of American Railroads, No. OP 18-0693, 2019 WL 608914 at *8 (emphasis added).  It’s worth noting that the DeBiasio court, cited here by the Association, gives us a précis of the other case cited by the Association, Frazier:

Courts have often upheld large verdicts in FELA cases. In Frazier, this court upheld a $2.3 million award for a back injury for an individual who did not require continued medical treatment or prescription pain medication, and could lift objects weighing under fifty pounds.

DeBiasio v. Illinois Cent. R.R., 52 F.3d 678, 688 (7th Cir. 1995).

An archived version of the Association’s membership page reports that “AAR members include the major Class I railroads of the United States, Canada and Mexico, as well as smaller non-Class I and commuter railroads.” Presumably, the next time a railroad is tempted to tell a court that a particular jury verdict is excessive, it will stop and ask itself:  “Is it ‘monstrously excessive’?”

Authored by: Robert ("Bob") M. Frey