June 24, 2011
Supreme Court Action Yesterday - Railroad Liability for Injury and Sentencing
Here are the summaries of the other two Supreme Court opinions filed yesterday. CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride (10-235) concerns jury instructions in railroad injury cases. McBride was a locomotive engineer who was injured while switching railroad cars. He filed suit under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) which holds railroads liable from injury due to carrier negligence. The District Court instructed the jury that they should find for McBride if CSX's negligence caused or contributed to his injury. CSX wanted an additional instruction that required any negligence on its part to be the proximate cause of McBride's injury. The District Court instead used the Seventh Circuit's Pattern FELA instruction which was based on the Supreme Court precedent of Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U. S. 500 (1957). McBride was awarded damages against CSX. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment noting that Rodgers had relaxed the standard of proximate cause in FELA cases and other courts used the same standard.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit. It held that the language of the statute and Rodgers was a correct statement of the law. The instruction used by the District Court tracked the language of Rodgers which correctly stated the level of causation under FELA. CSX's interpretation would be inconsistent with statutory language that did not incorporate traditional common law applications of proximate cause. As straight forward as the decision seems. It was a close decision. Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, except for Part III-A. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan joined in full, and Justice Thomas joined all except Part III-A. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito.
Freeman v. United States (09-10245) is a sentencing case. Freeman was sentenced to 106 months under a plea agreement for various crimes including possession of cocaine base with intent to distribute. The plea was negotiated by Freeman and the Government under the Sentencing Guidelines using the mandatory minimum length associated with the various charges to which Freeman pled. Three years after the District Court accepted the plea, the Sentencing Commission issued a retroactive guideline that reduced the penalties associated with cocaine base and powder cocaine so as to reduce the disparity between the two. Freeman moved for a sentence reduction under the Guideline and the District Court denied the motion with the Sixth Circuit affirming.
The Supreme Court reversed. It held that the statute authorizing the plea agreement allowed the reduction as the agreement was negotiated under the Sentencing Guidelines. The Court analyzed the relationship of the Guidelines to the statute and concluded the Freeman was eligible for sentence reduction. Justice Kennedy announced the judgment of the Court joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan. Justic Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito. [MG]