The United States Supreme Court recently held that payments to an injured employee for lost wages are taxable compensation under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA) (High Court Calls Lost Wages Taxable in 7-2 Railway Ruling). The Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the railroad in BNSF Railway Company v. Loos, allowing the withholding of part of the employee’s lost wages to cover RRTA taxes.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion cited the 1946 decision Social Security Bd. v. Nierotko, which held that an award of back pay to an employee constituted wages under the Social Security Act. “Our decision in Nierotko undermines Loos’s argument that, unlike sick pay and vacation pay, payments ‘compensat[ing] for an injury,’ are not taxable under the RRTA,” Ginsburg wrote. “Applying that reasoning here, there should be no dispositive difference between a payment voluntarily made and one required by law.”
In a somewhat surprising development, the liberal wing of the Court was joined by new Republican appointee Brett Kavanaugh in a decision that favored a huge railroad company at the expense of the little guy. And in another twist, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by the ultra-conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, penned a dissent defending the employee against the railroad behemoth.
While Ginsburg seems to have accepted BNSF’s claim that a ruling in its favor would help ensure the solvency of the federal railroad retirement system, Gorsuch notes that paying more in taxes now will ultimately allow BNSF to pay less to injured employees. “Railroads like BSNF can now sweeten their settlement offers while offering less money,” Gorsuch wrote. “Employees will pay a tax for going to trial – and railroads will succeed in buying cheaper settlements in the future at the bargain basement price of a few thousand dollars in excise taxes in one case today.”
Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has generally been friendly to business and hostile to workers. The recent appointments by President Trump should only be expected to make things worse. But this case shows that you can’t always count on even the liberal justices to fight for the rights of workers against big business. If you have been injured in a railroad accident, it is critical that you hire an experienced attorney. Please call DBJ today at 1-800-875-5972 for a free consultation.
A recent Reuters article (Supreme Court tightens rules on where companies can be sued) highlighted yet another decision by the United States Supreme Court in favor of large corporations at the expense of the common man. Two employees sued railroad giant BNSF in Montana under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a federal law granting injured railroad workers the right to sue their employers for compensation in the event of a work-related injury.
Lawsuits can generally be brought against corporations in states where they have sufficiently significant contacts. Despite the fact that BNSF maintains more than 2,000 miles of railroad track and employs over 2,000 workers in Montana, the Court held that the state court does not have jurisdiction unless the corporation is based in the state or the injuries were suffered there.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg strayed from her usual liberal viewpoint to side with the Court’s conservative wing and author the Court’s majority opinion. “The business BNSF does in Montana is sufficient to subject the railroad to specific personal jurisdiction in that State on claims related to the business it does in Montana,” Ginsburg wrote. But jurisdiction does not extend to claims “that are unrelated to any activity occurring in Montana.”
FELA was specifically enacted by Congress to give injured railroad workers access to compensation for their injuries, but the Court’s decision severely limits that access. “Going forward, some injured rail workers may have to travel far from home just to reach a courthouse that can hear their claims,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Julie Murray. “Workers already suffering from disabling injuries caused by their employers shouldn’t have to bear that burden.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered the Court’s lone dissenting opinion in the 8-1 decision. “It is individual plaintiffs, harmed by the actions of a far-flung foreign corporation, who will bear the brunt of the majority’s approach and be forced to sue in distant jurisdictions with which they have no contacts or connection,” Sotomayor wrote.
This decision makes it more important than ever to hire an experienced FELA attorney if you are a railroad employee who has been injured on the job. DBJ has a long track record of successful FELA cases. Please call us today at 1-800-875-5972 for a free consultation.
A recent CBS News article (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/bus-train-crash-there-were-16-accidents-at-mississippi-train-crossing-over-4-decades/) highlighted the increasing danger at railroad crossings across the United States.
A bus full of tourists headed to Mississippi casinos became stuck on railroad tracks at a crossing in Biloxi, Mississippi. The bus sat on the tracks for over five minutes. Finally, as the passengers were trying to disembark, the bus was rammed by a CSX Transportation freight train, killing four people and injuring forty more, seven critically. The train dragged the bus over 300 feet and it took over an hour to remove all of the passengers, including two victims who had to be cut free from the wreckage.
According to a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there have been sixteen vehicle train accidents at this particular railroad crossing since 1976, not even counting the most recent tragedy. In January, the driver of a tractor-trailer that was stuck on the tracks got out and ran down the tracks to warn the engineer, but the train still slammed into the truck. At least two of the numerous other previous accidents – in 1983 and 2003 – also included fatalities.
After declining for a number of years, railroad crossing deaths in the United States have been on the rise recently, culminating in 265 fatalities in 2016. States received nearly $400 million in federal funds last year to improve railroad crossing safety, but sadly, the Mississippi crossing that was the site of this devastating tragedy did not even make the government’s list of most dangerous crossings.
The NTSB is investigating the collision because of the pattern of accidents at the crossing, and it could issue an urgent recommendation if immediate action is required, but as a practical matter this rarely happens. Indeed, the real question is why has it taken so long for the crossing to be investigated? How many devastating accidents and tragic deaths are too many?
DBJ has recovered hundreds of millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for our clients who have been injured in railroad crossing accidents. Please call us today at 1-800-875-5972 for a free consultation with an experienced railroad crossing accident lawyer.