By Andrew Chung/Reuters
NEW YORK – The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to resolve a dispute that could limit where corporations can be sued, potentially delivering a blow to plaintiffs’ lawyers seeking to bring cases in friendly courts.
The justices said they would decide an appeal by Texas-based BNSF Railway Co. of a 2015 Montana Supreme Court ruling allowing out-of-state residents to sue there over injuries that occurred anywhere in BNSF’s nationwide network.
Companies and plaintiffs are waging a high-stakes battle over where lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries should be filed. Companies typically can be sued in the state where they are headquartered or incorporated, as well as where they have significant ties.
The appeal by BNSF, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., involves two lawsuits brought under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, a U.S. law that allows injured railroad employees to sue for compensation from their companies.
BNSF fuel truck driver Robert Nelson sued in 2011 over a slip-and-fall accident in which he injured his knee. Kelli Tyrrell, the widow of railroad employee Brent Tyrrell, sued in 2014 alleging her husband was exposed to chemicals that caused him to die of kidney cancer.
Neither BNSF employee lived in Montana and their allegations did not occur in the state, according to court filings.
BNSF argued that the Montana courts did not have jurisdiction over the cases. The Montana Supreme Court in May, however, ruled that state courts there can hear cases against BNSF without violating due process rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution because the company does business in the state.
In petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, BNSF argued that the Montana court is violating high court precedent limiting courts’ jurisdiction.
The case is BNSF Railway Co v. Kelli Tyrrell et al, 16-405, in the Supreme Court of the United States.