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Straub v. BNSF Railway Company

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

December 3, 2018

GEORGE W. STRAUB, IV, Plaintiff - Appellant,
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:15-CV-01890-CMA-MEH)

          James L. Cox, Jr., Brent Coon & Associates, Denver, Colorado, for the Appellant.

          Cash K. Parker (Malcolm S. Mead and Keith M. Goman on the brief), Hall & Evans, L.L.C., Denver, Colorado, for the Appellee.

          Before BACHARACH, MURPHY, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.



         George Straub, an employee of BNSF Railway Company ("BNSF"), injured his back and neck when, in the course and scope of his duties, he attempted to adjust the engineer's chair of Locomotive #6295. Straub brought suit, asserting BNSF was, inter alia, strictly liable for his injuries under the provisions of the Federal Locomotive Inspection Act ("LIA"), 49 U.S.C. § 20701-20703, and its implementing regulations, 49 C.F.R. pt. 229. Upon BNSF's Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the district court concluded Straub's injuries did not implicate LIA. The district court ruled the adjustment mechanism of the engineer's seat was not an "integral or essential part of a completed locomotive." Cf. S. Ry. Co. v. Lunsford, 297 U.S. 398, 402 (1936) (describing the parts of a locomotive that are covered by LIA). Instead, according to the district court, the seat adjustment mechanism was a non-essential comfort device. In reaching this conclusion, the district court relied on this court's decision in King v. Southern Pacific Transportation Co., 855 F.2d 1485, 1488-89 (10th Cir. 1988). Straub appeals, asserting the district court's reliance on King is misplaced. Exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, this court reverses and remands the matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         A. General Legal Background

         Congress enacted the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, after it determined the railroad industry owed a duty to its employees who daily expose themselves to extreme hazards.[1] FELA provides that "[e]very common carrier by railroad . . . shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier . . . for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier." Id. § 51. "[T]he general congressional intent was to provide liberal recovery for injured workers." Kernan v. Am. Dredging Co., 355 U.S. 426, 432 (1958). Thus, FELA does "away with several common-law tort defenses that had effectively barred recovery by injured workers." Consol. Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 542-43 (1994) (noting FELA rejects the doctrine of contributory negligence, prohibits employers from exempting themselves from coverage via contract, and abolishes the defense of assumption of risk). Given that Congress intended FELA to be a broad, remedial statute, the Supreme Court has adopted a standard of liberal construction to facilitate Congress's objective of compensating railroad workers who are injured on the job. See, e.g., id. at 543; CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, 564 U.S. 685, 691-92, 695 (2011).

         LIA is an amendment to FELA and the two statutes are to be construed together. See Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163, 189 (1949).[2] LIA makes it unlawful for a carrier to use any locomotive on its railway lines unless the locomotive and its "parts and appurtenances are safe to operate." 49 U.S.C. § 20701(1).[3] As is true of FELA, LIA must be construed liberally to carry out its remedial and humanitarian purposes. Urie, 337 U.S. at 189, 191; see also Garcia v. Burlington N. R.R. Co., 818 F.2d 713, 715 (10th Cir. 1987) (holding that because LIA is "a remedial statute, it should be construed liberally to protect railroad workers against harm caused by defective railroad equipment"). The remedial purposes of FELA and LIA are promoted through the imposition of different types of liability. Unlike FELA, where proof of negligence is required, LIA imposes on railroad carriers an absolute duty to maintain the locomotive in proper condition and safe to operate. 49 U.S.C. § 20701; Lilly v. Grand Trunk W. R.R. Co., 317 U.S. 481, 485 (1943); Matson v. Burlington N. Santa Fe R.R., 240 F.3d 1233, 1235 (10th Cir. 2001). Even if a railroad carrier complies with every regulation promulgated by the Federal Railroad Administration ("FRA"), [4] it will still violate LIA if a locomotive is not in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of injury. Lilly, 317 U.S. at 485-86.

         LIA does not create a private right of action. Urie, 337 U.S. at 188. A railroad employee injured due to a LIA violation brings an action through FELA; a LIA violation substitutes for "negligence" in 45 U.S.C. § 51 and creates strict liability. Id. at 188-89 (characterizing LIA as a supplement to FELA, which "dispense[s], for the purposes of employees' suits, with the necessity of proving that violations of the safety statutes constitute negligence; and mak[es] proof of such violations . . . effective to show negligence as a matter of law"). A railroad carrier can violate LIA either by (1) breaching the broad statutory duty to keep all parts and appurtenances of its locomotives in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury (the general statutory duty) or (2) failing to comply with regulations issued by the FRA (a specific regulatory duty). Lilly, 317 U.S. at 485-86; King, 855 F.2d at 1489 & n.2; McGinn v. Burlington N. R.R. Co., 102 F.3d 295, 299 (7th Cir. 1996).

         B. Factual Background

         The relevant facts, as set out in Straub's First Amended Complaint, are as follows. See Peterson v. Grisham, 594 F.3d 723, 727 (10th Cir. 2010) (holding that in the context of reviewing the grant of a Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, this court will "accept all well-pled factual allegations as true and view these allegations in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party"). Straub was injured on September 9, 2012, while working in the course and scope of his employment with BNSF. On that day, Straub was assigned to work as an engineer on Locomotive #6295, a coal train originating out of Gillette, Wyoming. Just prior to departure, Straub attempted to adjust the seat assembly. The seat moved initially, and then stopped abruptly and unexpectedly, causing injury to his back and neck. Straub reported the condition of the seat to BNSF. "A Mechanical Department employee responded to the locomotive, attempted to move the seat, experienced the same problem, inspected the adjustment mechanism, and then oiled the adjustment mechanism."

         The adjustment mechanism on the engineer's seat is intended to allow the engineer to move the seat forward or backward, thereby providing a safe and a comfortable position for the engineer to operate the locomotive. The defective condition of the adjustment mechanism made it unsafe to operate and created a risk of injury because, among other things, the seat moved some distance then stopped unexpectedly while pressure was being applied to move the heavy engineer's seat in a bent-over position. The seat and its adjustment mechanisms are one unit, and an essential and integral part of the locomotive. Attached to the operative complaint are pictures of the engineer's chair. See Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007) ("[C]ourts must consider the complaint in its entirety, as well as other sources courts ordinarily examine when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, in particular, documents incorporated into the complaint by reference . . . ."). Those pictures include the operating instructions for the chair's various adjustment mechanisms, which instructions are attached to the back of the engineer's chair. The operating instructions include several diagrams that explain the various functions of the engineer's chair (e.g., "lumbar horizontal adjust handle," "seat back recline adjust handle," "track fore & aft adjust handle," and "footrest height adjust pedal"). A particularly relevant set of diagrams show that ...

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