New Supreme Court Ruling Limits Where Companies Can Be Sued for Personal Injury

by | Published on Jul 10, 2017 | Workers Compensation

Medical record retrieval and medical record review for attorneys are significant processes in both workers’ compensation and personal injury cases. Though these types of cases have similarities, the major difference between the two is that of “fault.” A personal injury case is based on fault whereas a workers’ comp case is not. To recover damages in a personal injury case, you need to prove another person’s negligence. In a workers’ comp case, any worker injured on the job is entitled to benefits with some limited exceptions. You don’t need to prove that the employer or co-workers were at fault to receive the benefits. Even if the worker himself/herself was negligent and that negligence caused the injury, he/she can still receive workers’ comp benefits.

Injured workers don’t have the right to sue their employers and co-workers for negligence, or claim damages for pain and suffering. However, two small categories of employees do not come under any workers’ compensation laws – interstate railroad workers and crewmembers of vessels. Interstate railroad workers are authorized by the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), a federal law to sue their employer for damages if they get injured while on the job. Crewmembers of vessels are authorized by another federal law known as the Jones Act to sue their employers for damages, including pain and suffering.

A recent Supreme Court ruling limits where companies/employers can be sued for personal injuries. This ruling is expected to have a significant impact on future personal injury suits by limiting where they can be filed. This ruling came in a case involving BNSF Railway Co., a Texas-based company – the Supreme Court ruled that the corporation could not be sued in Montana for injuries that were sustained elsewhere. The justices ruled, 8-1, that States cannot hear claims for injuries that occur out-of-state where the injury was sustained or that occur outside of the state where the company/corporation is based.

The case involved two plaintiffs who sued BNSF for two separate and unrelated injuries under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.

  • One case involved a South Dakota resident and BNSF truck driver Robert Nelson who alleged he injured his knee in a slip-and-fall accident in 2011. His injury occurred in Washington State.
  • The second case was filed by South Dakota resident Kelli Tyrrel in 2014 against BNSF alleging that her late husband developed fatal kidney cancer because of exposure to carcinogenic chemicals while on the job in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

Both lawsuits were filed in Montana, where BNSF conducts much of its business. The company employs more than 2,000 Montana residents and operates trains on more than 2,000 miles of railway. According to the Supreme Court ruling, just doing business in Montana “does not suffice to permit the assertion of general jurisdiction over claims like Nelson’s and Tyrrell’s that are unrelated to any activity occurring in Montana.”

The significance of this Supreme Court ruling is that it limits where plaintiffs, whether a company or individual, can sue a defendant who has allegedly injured them. Defendants now have more clarity and predictability regarding where they may be sued for injuries. Generally, plaintiffs can file a lawsuit against companies where they are based, incorporated or conduct a major portion of business. With this ruling, people can’t “shop” for states that have laws which allow them to file personal injury lawsuits more easily. The single dissenter in the 8-1 ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has concerns regarding this because she feels that plaintiffs harmed by large corporations may be forced to sue in “distant jurisdictions with which they have no contacts or connection.”

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