Court to rule on out-of-state lawsuits filed in Montana
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether it should ban injured railroad employees from filing lawsuits against their companies in Montana if their claims have nothing to do with the state.
Two BNSF Railway workers sued the Texas company last year in Yellowstone County District Court, though their injuries happened in other states and neither of them lived or worked in Montana. The practice is allowed under a federal law that says a claim can be filed where the defendant is doing business at the time, and at least 12 such cases are pending in Montana courts.
Attorneys for BNSF argued a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year changed all that. The federal court ruled then Mercedes Benz’s parent company, Daimler, could not be sued in California for alleged complicity in the kidnapping and torture of auto workers in Argentina.
In the ruling, the high court said jurisdiction is where the corporation is “at home,” except for exceptional cases where the corporation’s operations in another state are so extensive it could be considered at home there, too.
BNSF operates in 28 states, but its home is in Texas, and the out-of-state injury lawsuits have nothing to do with Montana, BNSF attorney Randy Cox told the Montana Supreme Court justices.
Only 10 percent of BNSF’s revenues come from Montana. Its more than 2,000 Montana workers represent less than 5 percent of the company’s total workforce and the 2,000 miles of track in the state is 6 percent of BNSF’s total mileage.
Attorneys for Brent Tyrrell and Robert Nelson, the workers who sued BNSF said the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling does not overrule the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, which allows railroad employees to sue where the company does business.
BNSF is the dominant railway in Montana, which makes it “at home” in the state, and Montana is a central and important part of the system, the workers’ attorneys argued.
“This is what BNSF does and this is where BNSF does it,” attorney Christopher Moreland told the justices.
Tyrrell’s lawsuit alleges he was exposed to carcinogenic chemicals while working in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa that caused him to develop cancer. He died from his illness, and his family is pursuing the lawsuit on his behalf.
Nelson was injured in Washington state in 2008 when he injured his knee.
Two Yellowstone County district judges made opposite rulings in Nelson’s and Tyrrell’s cases, prompting the appeal to the state’s high court.
The justices did not make and immediate ruling Wednesday.
This story has been updated to correct that the hearing happened Wednesday.