Court Backs BNSF in Jurisdiction Case

The U.S. Supreme Court this past week ruled in favor of BNSF in a case that has implications for all railroads involving the rules about where injury lawsuits against the carriers may be filed.

In an 8-1 decision, the high court overturned a decision by a court in Montana allowing out-of-state residents to sue there over injuries that occurred anywhere in BNSF’s system.

That practice, known as forum shopping, occurs when plaintiffs seek venues where they believe a court is most likely to rule in their favor.

The case involves two lawsuits against BNSF brought under the federal employers’ liability law and involved injuries that did not occur in Montana or involve residents of that state.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said that although BNSF has hundreds of miles of track and 2,000 employees in Montana, it cannot be held liable for “claims like [these] that are unrelated to any activity occurring in Montana.”

BNSF had argued that Montana courts lacked justification in the cases.

However, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that because BNSF does business in the Montana that courts there can hear lawsuits against BNSF without violating due process rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

The lone dissenting justice, Sonia Sotomayor, called the ruling a “jurisdictional windfall” for large multistate or multinational corporations. Sotomayor said plaintiffs will be “forced to sue in distant jurisdictions with which they have no contacts or connection.”

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