The Federal Employers' Liability Act: Sense and Nonsense About Causation

29 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2011

See all articles by Michael D. Green

Michael D. Green

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Date Written: April 11, 2011


The Federal Employers’ Liability Act was adopted at the eve of workers’ compensation reform and with the same progressive purpose of facilitating compensation for railroad workers. Unlike workers’ compensation, however, the FELA is reform with a tort wrap-around. A fault requirement was retained, while the infamous trilogy of defenses that so often prevented recovery were abolished or modified.

In 1956, the Supreme Court, in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Co., addressed the causal requirement adopted by the statute. In words that have reverberated in hundreds of FELA cases since, the Court declared that a defendant was liable if its negligence “played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury.” To say that subsequent cases reveal confusion about this language is a considerable understatement.

This article attempts to provide some coherence in how causation should be understood in the FELA given its statutory language, its progressive purpose, and the Rogers’s interpretation. It begins with an explanation of modern causation doctrine. That doctrine separates two elements that have for too long been combined under the umbrella term “proximate cause,” or in early Restatement vernacular, “legal cause.” Separate consideration of them, in light of the functions they serve, provides a coherent, straightforward, and comprehensive framework, one adopted in the recently published Third Restatement of Torts. The article proceeds to examine the Rogers opinion, catalog its errors, and canvass the confusion that it has generated for over half a decade.

The Supreme Court currently has pending a case, CSX Transportation., Inc. v. McBride, that addresses a significant aspect of Rogers and FELA: whether FELA retains any proximate cause (scope of liability, in Restatement parlance) requirement for a defendant’s negligence and, if so, what it is. The Court has an important opportunity to sweep away decades of confusion in it decision. The article concludes with several thoughts about how the Court might reconcile the statutory language, Rogers, and progressive intent of Congress in enacting the FELA.

Suggested Citation

Green, Michael D., The Federal Employers' Liability Act: Sense and Nonsense About Causation (April 11, 2011). Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 1807278, Available at SSRN: or

Michael D. Green (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States

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